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!

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.)

Dani.

Dani.

Danielle!

There were three texts from my sister waiting for me on my phone as I hurried out the door.

Somehow I hadn’t noticed them before.

I closed the door of my town house behind me and then stopped to type a response.

I’m here, Audrey. What do you want?

I stared at the text for a moment, realizing that it sounded a lot sharper than I’d intended it to, and I paused with my finger over the “send message” icon.

I really didn’t want to start an argument with my sister on her wedding day.

Then another text from Audrey popped up.

Danielle! Where are you?

So I just went ahead and sent the text I had already typed.

A moment later, Audrey replied.

Thanks for finally answering. I thought you had overslept.

There was a pause and then another text.

Do you have the ring? You’d better not forget it.

Of course I have the ring, I typed irritably.

But even as I pressed send, doubt tugged at my mind.

I began to rummage around in my flower-covered purse.

I couldn’t find the little black ring box anywhere.

Another text came through.

I’m sorry to be pesky. But I know how forgetful you are. Love you.

I stared at Audrey’s text in irritation and then went back into the house.

I found the little black ring box sitting on the kitchen table, and I snatched it up, feeling its soft velvet surface under my fingers.

I opened the box, just to make sure the ring was actually in it, and the gold band sparkled back at me reassuringly, nestled in its little black cushion. Then I snapped the box closed and dropped it into my purse in annoyance.

Then I made myself pause and take a breath.

It wasn’t the ring’s fault that I’d forgotten it—and it wasn’t Audrey’s fault, either. My big sister wasn’t really a bridezilla—in fact, she’d been good-natured and patient throughout almost all of the wedding preparations.

It was just in the last few days that she’d been stressed out. And I really couldn’t blame her—she just wanted things to go well so that everyone—bride and groom included—had a good time.

As I hurried back toward the door, I paused for just a moment to check my reflection in the mirror in the hall.

I wanted to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything else.

My sister, who was usually so calm and businesslike, had gone full-on Renaissance fair for her wedding. Audrey was twenty-seven—two years older than I was—and I would have thought that she was too old for that sort of thing.

But playing princess had taken a hold of her mind, and as her maid of honor, I was now dressed up in full maiden of yore regalia. My long blond hair, which I’d been growing out for the last six months, had been done up in braids and ribbons, and I’d been allowed to do my makeup any way I’d wished, as long as it was “natural.” But I couldn’t say the same thing about my dress. I was wearing a long and elaborate rose-colored gown that might not have been so bad if it weren’t for all the bows and ribbons and lace that had been attached everywhere.

And the puffy sleeves.

I really did not like the puffy sleeves.

But it was my sister’s wedding, and she liked the dress, so I was going to do my best to be happy wearing it.

Satisfied that Audrey would approve of my appearance, I hurried outside, slipping just a little in my flower-adorned sandals, and got in my car.

As I turned the key in the ignition—and prayed that my unreliable car would start—I found myself wondering if the princess bug would have bitten me, too, if things had worked out a little differently.

My heart fluttered a little at the thought, but then my car coughed to life, and I backed down the driveway and took off.

The wedding site was way out in the middle of nowhere, in the center of a heavily wooded state park, and luckily, my phone gave me good directions to the place. Even so, I was running short on time, and the parking lot near the site was filling up fast. I knew Audrey was basically ready to walk down the aisle, and our mother was there, but she still needed her maid of honor—if for no other reason than to steady her nerves. I parked quickly and jumped out of the car.

The wooded area where the wedding tents had been set up was vast, and I hurriedly pulled a scrap of paper with directions out of my purse.

My phone couldn’t help me where I was going.

I ran across the parking lot, slipping in my sandals again, and I soon reached the wide dirt path that the directions said would eventually lead to the secluded wedding site.

I hurried onto the path and soon found myself in the woods.

My sandals slapped at my heels as I ran along the hard-packed dirt, and my elaborate hairstyle was so full of bobby pins that I felt as if I had a metal helmet clanking against my head.

Luckily, the directions my sister had given me were good, and I was able to find all the landmarks and turn onto the right twisting dirt path that would lead me to the private area that was reserved for the wedding. I’d missed the rehearsal due to a sudden spring cold, so I was going to see the actual site and the tents for the first time.

I fished my phone out of my purse and looked for a photo of the site that Audrey had sent me. I found the photo and held it up in front of me—the site appeared to be in a little valley.

Then I put my phone back in my purse and hurried on.

As I ran, I kept an eye out for Gabe Kelley. He was the best man for Kevin Lattimer, the groom, and I wondered if I might run into him along the way. Gabe would surely need to arrive early, just as I did, and I wouldn’t have minded talking to him for a few minutes alone.

My heart fluttered again at the thought.

Gabe and I had once gotten along very well—we’d even been headed to a wedding site of our own. And then we had argued—disastrously—and things had come to an end. But time had passed—more than a year, in fact—and I’d found myself thinking about him again.

I wondered if he’d been thinking about me, too.

The path before me suddenly branched off into two, and I stopped to consult my directions.

My little scrap of paper seemed to indicate that I should take the path on the left side, but as I looked at the two forking branches, I saw that the left one was just plain dirt, and the right one had little glowing lights that ran along the ground.

The right one was definitely more festive-looking.

I consulted my little piece of paper once again. It still seemed to show that the left side was the correct path to follow, but as I stood staring at the directions, I could hear laughter and music floating up to me distantly. The sound was coming from the right-hand path.

I decided to follow the branch on the right, just in case.

Maybe Audrey had made a mistake in the directions.

I stepped onto the path, preparing to run again, but I was suddenly overcome by a sense of peace, and my feet slowed to a stroll.

I found myself admiring the decorative lights as I walked.

The lights were ingenious little glowing orbs that seemed to float just above the ground on both sides of the path, and they glowed in beautiful jewel tones—rich reds, deep blues, brilliant greens, dazzling yellows. I peered a little closer, wondering how the floating effect was achieved.

They really were lovely, and I marveled at the ingenuity of Audrey’s wedding planner.

I continued on down the path, and I found myself looking around in wonder. Somehow, the air seemed just a little sweeter, and as I looked up at the bright blue sky just visible through the trees, I found myself thinking that Audrey had chosen the perfect date and place.

May really was a perfect time for a wedding.

Soon I spotted people on the path up ahead of me, and I could hear the distant sound of conversation, along with more music.

I must have chosen the right path after all.

Suddenly, I heard someone calling my name.

“Dani! Dani, stop!” cried a familiar male voice.

I drew in my breath sharply.

The voice sounded like Gabe’s.

But when I turned to see who it was, there was no one on the path behind me. There was, however, a disturbance in a thick growth of bushes nearby.

Someone or something was shaking the branches violently.

I stepped a little closer, and then someone called out to me again.

“My lady!”

This voice was different from the first one—and unfamiliar.

I turned to see a man running toward me.

He was tall and blond, and he looked worried. His pale blond brows were furrowed, and the corners of his thin lips were drawn down.

“My lady!” he said again.

“What’s with the ‘my lady’ stuff?” I asked as he reached me.

Then I took in the belted tunic he was wearing with breeches and boots—definitely Ren fair style.

“Oh,” I said. “You must be here for the wedding.”

The man’s face lit up. “Yes, my lady. My name is Virgil. Your sister sent me to find you.”

I frowned a little as I looked at him. “My sister sent you? I’m afraid I don’t recognize you.”

Virgil looked embarrassed. “I’m a new member of the queen’s guard. But I’m quite capable, I can assure you.”

He held out a hand. “This way, if you please.”

“The queen’s guard?” I murmured to myself. It seemed to me that my sister was laying things on pretty thick.

I glanced up at Virgil as the two of us started walking along the path, and I saw the tip of a pointed ear poking out of his long blond hair—Audrey must have talked him into wearing prosthetics.

“She’s really gone all out for this wedding, hasn’t she?” I said.

Virgil glanced at me a little nervously. “Do you mean your sister, my lady?”

“Yes.”

Virgil cast his eyes down. “It’s not really for me to say.”

I sighed. So Virgil was going to stay in character as a member of the queen’s guard, and we wouldn’t even be able to make small talk. But at least I knew for sure that I had chosen the right path to follow.

I was glad I’d followed my instincts and ignored the directions.

There was a shout and more violent rustling from the bushes we had left behind, and I turned back quickly.

“What was that?” I said.

Virgil’s face hardened. “Nothing to worry about. My men will take care of it.”

I was surprised for a moment by just how serious he looked, but I supposed he was committed to his role.

I allowed myself to be led away.

As we walked along the path, Virgil kept glancing over at me.

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

Virgil’s fair skin went slightly pink.

“It’s just that your gown is most becoming, my lady,” he said. “And if I may say so, you truly are as beautiful as everyone says. And the accident that clipped off the tip of your ear has done nothing to mar your beauty.”

He frowned. “Although I thought it was just the one ear—but it looks like it was actually both.”

“My ear?” I said, puzzled.

Virgil’s blush deepened to red.

“I’m sorry, my lady. I was too free with my words. I shouldn’t have commented at all.”

Virgil’s posture became very stiff and formal, and I found myself thinking that Audrey’s friends were weird.

He continued to lead me along the brightly lit path through the trees, and soon we came out into a clearing.

The clearing sloped down into a little valley, and the valley was filled with white tents and lights that magically floated in the air in all colors of the rainbow. People with long, flowing hair, dressed in elaborate costumes, were hurrying back and forth between the tents, and on the far side of the valley, a white archway covered in flowers had been set up over an equally flower-laden altar.

I paused for a moment to take in the spectacle below.

Audrey and her wedding planner—a motherly woman named Betsy—had really outdone themselves.

I hadn’t paid much attention when Audrey had shared the plans with me, and I realized now that she and Betsy had really known what they were doing.

There was nothing tacky or clichéd about the setup—it looked like a real-life fairy tale.

Virgil had paused also and was looking back at me.

“My lady?” he said.

“Sorry,” I replied. “I’m coming.”

Virgil hurried on, and I followed him down the hill into the little valley.

He led me on to a tent in the center of the site—the largest and grandest one of them all, covered in golden swirls and flourishes—and he stood by the entrance to the tent as if he were afraid to move the gold-edged flap aside and enter.

Instead, he simply held out a hand.

“Your sister awaits, my lady.”

I glanced at him, puzzled, for a moment, and then I pushed the flap aside and stepped in.

Inside, there was a crowd of beautiful girls in equally beautiful dresses, and a soft, golden glow lit up the tent, making it nearly as bright as the day outside. The air smelled sweetly of flowers, and I could hear the murmur of soft voices as the girls fussed around something in the center of the tent.

As I entered, however, the conversation immediately stopped, and all the girls turned as one to look at me.

I realized then that none of the faces before me looked familiar.

“Hi,” I said uncertainly. “Is my sister here?”

The crowd of girls parted to reveal a regal young woman seated at their center.

She had long golden hair, and she was wearing a crown of flowers and a flowing white gown.

She was also stunningly beautiful.

I watched as her lovely features twisted into a frown that was somehow even more beautiful.

“Who are you?” the woman demanded in a clipped yet musical voice.

“I’m Danielle Williams,” I said. “I was looking for my sister—but I must have stumbled into the wrong wedding by accident.”

The woman stared at me as if I were a particularly loathsome bug, and I could feel outrage rolling off her in waves.

I took a step back. “I’m sorry I intruded. You’re a beautiful bride, by the way.”

The woman rose. That one simple movement was fluid, graceful, and somehow mesmerizing.

“Guard!” she screamed.

Virgil stepped into the tent, his eyes downcast.

“Your Majesty,” he said.

“Look at me,” the woman commanded.

Virgil complied.

“Who am I?”

“You are my queen, Your Majesty.”

“Am I? You seem to have forgotten that. What is my name?”

“You are Queen Leandra, ruler of all the Fae,” Virgil replied.

He was visibly shaking now.

I looked from one to the other, trying to figure out if they were crazy or if this was some kind of performance art.

Queen Leandra pointed a finger at me. “Now look at this creature.”

Virgil meekly turned his eyes toward me.

“Why did you bring her here?” the queen demanded, her voice rising.

“I—I thought she was your sister, Your Majesty.”

Queen Leandra fumed. “My sister? You dare compare this lowly thing to her? This is a human being. This is not my sister!”

I had just a moment to feel offended before another young woman suddenly rushed into the tent. She was breathtakingly beautiful like the queen, and she was wearing a rose-colored gown that was superficially like mine.

“Leandra!” the young woman cried, looking around.

Then she ran toward the queen—I assumed this was the missing sister.

“What is it, Iona?” Leandra said, stepping forward. “What’s wrong?”

“Humans,” Iona replied grimly. “They’re having a wedding nearby, and our wards don’t seem to be keeping them out. Several have stumbled close to the tents but have been scared off. One actually attacked our guards and has been taken into custody.”

“Humans?” I said. This was the second time someone had used the term as if it were something unusual. “Isn’t that what we all are?”

Leandra ignored my words and pointed an accusing finger at me. “And then there’s this one.”

Iona turned to look at me and gasped in horror.

“She got in here with no trouble at all,” Leandra hissed. “She could have killed me.”

“What?” I squeaked, startled.

These people were getting crazier by the minute.

Leandra stared at me with fury kindling in her eyes. “You and your conspirators have ruined my wedding!” She turned to scream at the hapless Virgil. “Guard! Do your job and put this miserable creature with the other one!”

Virgil turned toward me.

And I decided to run for it.

But as soon as I pushed my way through the tent flap, I found myself surrounded by a group of tall, blond guards that looked a lot like Virgil.

They led me away, and I fought down a rising sensation of panic.

First, that I’d been kidnapped by a bunch of crazy people.

And second, that they might not actually be crazy at all.

The guards marched me over to a white, unadorned tent on the far side of the valley—far away from the queen—and then they slapped a pair of ridiculously fancy handcuffs on my wrists.

But even though the cuffs looked more like jewelry than a form of imprisonment, they felt solid and unbreakable as I twisted my wrists against the cold metal.

The guards pushed me into the tent, which was dark inside, and they quickly attached my handcuffs to a chain, which they then wrapped several times around a large, sturdy pole in the center of the tent. Then one guard, who looked so much like Virgil that he could have been his brother, pushed me to the ground into a sitting position with my back against the pole.

He wrapped the chain around me several more times and then secured it somewhere out of my sight.

He gave the chain one last rattle, and then he and all the other guards departed, leaving me in the gloom.

But the tent wasn’t completely dark—a vaguely orange glow shone through the white cloth walls—and I wasn’t entirely alone.

I could tell that there was another person on the other side of the pole who was chained and seated as I was. I’d seen a dark form huddled by the pole when I’d been pushed into the tent, and I could hear someone rustling around now.

“Who’s there?” I said.

“Dani, is that you?” said a familiar voice.

It was a male voice—low and a little smoky—and I caught my breath.

“Gabe?” I said.

“Yes, of course, it’s Gabe.”

“What are you doing here?” I said.

“I was following you,” Gabe replied wearily. “You were headed the wrong way, as usual, and I was trying to stop you. And then a bunch of guys in elf costumes jumped me.”

I thought back to the disturbance in the bushes I had seen.

I realized now that that had probably been the queen’s guards grabbing Gabe.

“You were trying to help me?” I asked.

“Yes,” Gabe said in exasperation. “I was trying to help you, Dani. And as usual, that ended up getting me in trouble.”

I sat quietly for just a moment, letting his voice wash over me—I hadn’t seen him in a long time.

And yet I still felt a little tingle when he said my name.

“I’m sorry I got you into this,” I said at last. “But thanks for looking out for me. And I was hoping I’d run into you here—just not like this.”

“You were?” Gabe said. I could hear genuine astonishment in his voice.

“Yes,” I said simply.

“Even after the way we left things?”

“Yes.” There was more I could have said, but it didn’t seem necessary.

I moved a little, and my chains clanked. “So where are we?”

“I overheard some of the guards talking,” Gabe said, his voice tinged with sarcasm. “Queen Leandra of the Fae is marrying Aden, the Lord of the Summer Woods, here today, and apparently the spells they use to keep human beings away aren’t working.”

“I heard something like that, too,” I said. “Though I didn’t hear who the groom was.”

I paused. “Do you believe it?”

Gabe rattled his own chains. “I think we have to.”

“So the Queen of the Fae is getting married in May,” I said. “It’s sort of like a Mae wedding—you know, M-A-E.”

Gabe chuckled. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve actually missed your corny jokes.”

It was my turn to be astonished. “You have?”

“Yes, Dani. I’ve missed you. I’ve even missed the things that used to drive me nuts. In fact, I’ve especially missed the things that used to drive me nuts.”

I felt a little rush of warmth when he said that.

Gabe went on. “You know, Dani, I’ve realized that I spent a lot of time trying to change you. You’re scattered and forgetful sometimes. But that’s who you are. And the good qualities you have far outweigh the less-than-perfect ones. I should have seen that a long time ago. I should have valued you just the way you were.”

“Uh, thanks, I think,” I said.

I turned my head in the orange glow, wishing I could see his face. I’d waited a long time to hear Gabe say something like that, and even though the delivery wasn’t ideal, I felt like the sentiment was real.

I just wished I could see his eyes to be sure.

“And I’m sorry I was irritable before,” Gabe said. “This isn’t your fault. There’s no way you could have known those elf guys or Fae guys—or whatever they are—were down here. You saw a likely looking path and you took it. Anybody could have made that same mistake.”

It definitely sounded to me like Gabe was being sincere, and my heart gave a little flutter.

This was the Gabe I’d always hoped to find.

“So you don’t think I’m trouble?”

I could hear a smile in Gabe’s voice. “Well, maybe a little. But you’re the good kind of trouble. And you’re exactly who you should be.”

I felt another rush of warmth. I wanted to turn toward him—to hug him, to kiss him. But all I managed to do was rattle my chains.

And suddenly I thought of my sister.

I groaned. “Audrey’s going to kill me. I’ve got Kevin’s ring.”

My purse, on its slender, flower-entwined strap, was somehow miraculously still dangling from my shoulder.

“And I’ve got Audrey’s,” Gabe said. “I’ve lost track of time, but I have to imagine we’re late by now.”

I glanced around the gloomy tent. “So how do we get out of here?”

“The first thing we have to do is get out of these handcuffs,” Gabe replied. “They’re sturdy, but they look pretty old-fashioned. If I had a pick, I might be able to unlock mine.”

He paused, and I could hear a smile in his voice again.

“Do you remember that survival skills class we took?”

I smiled myself in response. “Yes, I do.”

Gabe had talked me into the class—it had been part of his campaign to get me to be more responsible and less “scattered,” as he put it. But the class had actually turned out to be pretty useful, and I had learned a few things that had come in handy in my own life.

And—like Gabe—I had learned how to pick a lock on handcuffs.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I’ve got a hairstyle full of bobby pins. Maybe we can use those.”

My hands had actually been bound pretty tightly with the chains, and I couldn’t lift them very high. So I began to brush my head against the back of the pole.

Maybe I could dislodge a few of the pins.

“See if you can scootch down a little,” Gabe said. “If you can brush up against the chains, you might be able to dislodge the pins a bit better.”

After much maneuvering on my part, I was able to loosen a few of the bobby pins, and eventually they fell to the ground with a soft thud.

Gabe quickly scrabbled around on the ground near the pole with his manacled hands.

“I’ve got one!” he said in hushed excitement.

I swept my fingers over the ground, too, and eventually I felt my fingers brush against the cool metal of a tiny bobby pin.

I picked it up carefully, and I got to work on my own shackles.

I could hear Gabe’s bobby pin clinking against the metal of his handcuffs, and before long, there was a tiny click.

“I’m free,” he said softly.

His chains rattled as he worked his way out of their grasp, and as he stood up, I felt my own handcuffs spring open.

I wriggled my way out of my chains and stood up also.

Gabe hurried over to me and wrapped his arms around me.

Then he stepped back, and I was able to look at him for the first time since I’d been brought into the tent.

His face was still a little rugged and weathered from all the time he spent outdoors, his eyes were still warm and brown, and his dark hair still curled a little at the ends.

But as he smiled at me in the amber-tinted gloom of the tent, I could see a look in his eyes that I’d never seen before—one that was open and vulnerable and trusting.

“Your hair’s all messed up,” he said, and he ran a gentle hand over it.

“Oh, Gabe,” I said. And for just a moment, I leaned against him, and he embraced me once again.

Then I remembered we were trapped.

With Gabe’s arms still encircling me, I glanced around.

“We’ve got to get out of here without being seen,” I said. “And I bet there are guards all around this tent.”

Gabe glanced around also. “I bet you’re right. Stay here.”

He turned and walked stealthily toward the side of the tent, and I giggled just a little to myself at the sight of him tiptoeing in his brocade tunic and breeches—Audrey had clearly gotten her hands on Kevin’s groomsmen, too. Then he crouched down, lifted the cloth ever so slightly, and peered out.

I walked over to the opposite side and did the same.

I could see the booted feet of at least three guards from my side of the tent.

I stood up and found Gabe standing beside me.

“So much for staying put,” he said softly.

“I was never good at that,” I replied.

Gabe smiled wryly. “I know. So I assume you saw guards just like I did?”

“Yes—I think we’re surrounded.”

Gabe nodded. “I think you’re right. I don’t know how we’re going to get out of here.”

I glanced over at the pile of chains we had left behind.

“I have an idea,” I said.

Soon we had gathered up all of the chains and unfastened them from their moorings. And then, on my direction, we tiptoed up to the flap that served as the entrance to the tent.

I didn’t know if the flap was tied shut or not, but it really didn’t matter. I doubted it was tied tightly—tents weren’t meant to hold prisoners.

“What do we do now?” Gabe mouthed silently.

“We throw the chains out,” I whispered. “Then we run the other way.”

Gabe’s eyebrows rose. “That’s it? That’s your big plan?”

“Yes,” I said. “Do you trust me?”

Gabe stared at me for a long moment. Then he smiled.

“Yes,” he said quietly.

I smiled back.

“Then on the count of three,” I said. “One—two—three!”

We both heaved our pile of chains out through the front flap of the tent.

“We’ve escaped!” I shouted at the same time. “You’d better come in here and get us!”

Then I turned and ran toward the opposite end of the tent.

Gabe ran after me.

We reached the far wall and ducked under it just as the first guards were entering.

We scrambled free of the tent, and I hurried over to the nearest tent pole.

“Help me with this,” I said.

I began to push at it.

Gabe saw what I was doing, and he pushed along with me.

Within a matter of moments, the pole collapsed, and the roof of the tent began to fall. Soon the big white mass of cloth was writhing as the guards struggled to get out.

Gabe stared at the tent. “They all ran in after us, and you trapped them inside.” He turned to me in wonder. “That really was a good idea.”

I grinned. “I know. Come on! We’d better run.”

I turned and fled toward the trees.

Gabe caught up with me and grabbed my arm. “You’re going the wrong way! The path is over here!”

He veered sharply to the left, and I turned and ran alongside him.

Soon we had scrambled up the hill out of the valley, and I could spy the dirt path with the brightly colored lights up ahead of us.

I glanced behind me.

A crowd of blond-haired guards was charging up the hill after us. Our guards had clearly worked their way free of the tent—and from what I could see—more had now joined the group to help them.

Gabe glanced back also.

Then we both ran even faster.

We ran, huffing and puffing, along the path with the colorful lights, with the shouts of the guards and their pounding footsteps growing closer and closer. We ran and ran and ran, until we finally broke free of the trees.

Then all the shouting stopped, and we nearly collided with two people who had suddenly appeared in front of us.

I stopped just in time, and Gabe skidded to a halt beside me.

I looked at the newcomers—a man and a woman—warily, but they seemed to be a normal human couple. They weren’t tall, willowy, or golden-haired, and they didn’t have pointy ears—instead they looked like typical tourists in shorts, T-shirts, and sneakers.

I glanced at the path behind us with the brightly colored lights.

It had disappeared.

The tourists glared at us and then moved on.

“Sorry,” Gabe called after them. “We’re late for a wedding.”

At that moment, both of our cell phones lit up and began to buzz insistently.

I glanced back at the spot where the vanished path had been. “Do you think we’re safe?”

Gabe breathed out heavily. “I think so—there’s no sign of pursuit.”

My phone continued to buzz.

I saw that I had a long line of texts waiting for me.

I clicked on the first one.

Where are you? Audrey demanded.

I looked up at Gabe. He was looking at his phone, too.

“We’re in a lot of trouble,” I said.

“Yep,” he replied.

“They’re never going to believe us,” I said.

“No—no, they’re not.”

Gabe smiled and held out a hand.

“Let’s go and get in trouble together.”

I took his hand.

“What are we going to tell them?” I asked.

“Let’s just tell them that I got lost,” Gabe said. “And you came and found me.”

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

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.

Maple Syrup Magic — New Short Story

Maple Syrup Magic Cover

Maple Syrup Magic

Catherine Mesick

Afterwards, she was never quite sure why she’d thought of it.

As Beth Taggart sat in her tiny kitchen, gazing out the window on one frosty Tuesday morning in November, she suddenly thought of brownies.

She wasn’t actually thinking of baked goods—instead she was thinking of the pixies or imps or whatever they were that her grandfather had told her about when she was a child.

According to Granddad Ian, if you left milk out for the brownies overnight, they would be very grateful and clean your kitchen and do your household chores in return—particularly ones that involved caring for the animals in your barns.

Granddad Ian had emigrated from Scotland, and he’d said that the brownies had followed him. But Beth had never seen any sign of them, and there weren’t any animals in her barn—at least not yet.

She smiled as she sipped at her coffee.

A man came into view, and Beth caught her breath. He had sandy hair and an honest, open face, and he looked very sturdy in his flannel shirt and jeans as he trudged across the backyard carrying a toolbox and a big block of wood in his ungloved hands.

Beth knew it was cold outside—very cold, in fact—but the man wore no coat and didn’t seem to feel it.

He paused and smiled at two men who came up behind him and then nodded his head briefly in greeting.

He was young—about Beth’s age—and she knew his first name was Dean—she’d heard some of the other men calling out to him.

Dean was there with Ashe Construction Company to refurbish her barn. It was nearly two hundred years old, and it wasn’t really fit to house animals in any longer—the roof leaked in more than a dozen spots, and the wind whistled through the walls as though there wasn’t any barrier there at all.

Besides, Beth needed something more than an ordinary barn. She intended to keep animals from her practice there—the ones who were sickest and needed the most care—and she needed proper heating in the winter and cooling in the summer—not to mention excellent lighting, ventilation, and floors and surfaces that could be kept properly clean and sanitary.

Bales of hay and straw-covered floors wouldn’t be enough for her patients.

Dean turned abruptly and began to walk back toward the house. As he did so, he happened to glance toward the window, and his eyes met Beth’s.

Beth started and nearly ducked down below the edge of the window, but she stopped herself just in time.

Dean smiled and nodded his head at her, and Beth raised a hand in greeting.

Then he continued on past her and disappeared from view.

He’d probably forgotten something in his truck and was just going to get it.

Beth could feel a blush rising to her cheeks, and she berated herself for acting like a schoolgirl with a crush, but she couldn’t help lingering by the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Dean when he returned.

He did indeed return after a moment, this time carrying a bucket that had the block of wood sticking out of it, and Beth stood by the window and angled herself so she could watch Dean without his seeing her.

As he walked away from her, Beth realized that there was something about him that reminded her just a little of her granddad. Dean didn’t look anything like him, of course—Granddad Ian had had coal-black curls that Beth herself had inherited, and a long, rangy frame that was quite different from Dean’s sturdy muscularity—but there was something there.

Somehow, Dean gave her the same sense of safety and serenity that her grandfather had once given her—even though she’d barely spoken four words to him.

Dean disappeared into the antique barn with the other men, and Beth sighed softly to herself.

She’d give a lot to be able to talk to Dean.

But she just didn’t know how.

Beth finished her coffee, and as she was putting her breakfast things in the dishwasher, the phone rang.

She answered on the second ring, and a breathless, panicked voice poured out of the little device.

“Dr. Taggart? Is that you?”

Beth recognized the anxious tones of one of her clients—it was Mrs. Davis, the owner of a cat named Bluebell, who had just undergone surgery.

“Yes, Mrs. Davis, I’m here.”

“How is Bluebell? Is she okay? Did she survive the night?”

Beth’s voice was soothing. She calmed Mrs. Davis’s fears and promised that she was going in to the office to check on Bluebell right now.

Then Beth said goodbye to her own cat, Peyton, and her English bulldog, Growler, and hurried out to her car.

As she drove, she thought of the brownies again. She didn’t know if Dean’s vague resemblance to her grandfather had put them in her mind, or if she simply wanted something else to care for while she waited for her animals. She had Peyton and Growler, of course, but they were both hale and hearty and didn’t need her medical expertise at the moment.

But brownies were mysterious and shy—maybe she could draw them out.

She didn’t need any housecleaning done, but she could test her granddad’s stories—see if she could catch sight of one of the little creatures.

Beth smiled to herself. She knew very well nothing would come of it, but she resolved to put out a little dish of milk that evening anyway.

She would do it in honor of her granddad.

Somehow the idea made her laugh, and she was in excellent spirits as she arrived at the office.

She went first to check on Bluebell, and the blue-gray cat blinked blearily and yawned, showing a pink tongue, when Beth turned on the light.

A dog in a nearby kennel began to bark excitedly, and Beth went to check on all of her overnight patients.

Beth was able to call Mrs. Davis and reassure her that Bluebell was doing well. But she cautioned her that the patient needed to stay in the office for one more day—first, so that she could get proper rest after surgery, and second, so that Beth could keep an eye on her feline charge.

She didn’t expect any complications, but she wanted to be sure.

And that was really the purpose of the barn at her house—she could keep surgery patients and difficult cases out there. That way she could check on them late at night and first thing in the morning.

She might even move her whole practice out there eventually and give up the office space she was renting.

But that was a little way in the future yet, and right now, Beth needed to work.

She put on her white coat and looked over the day’s appointments.

She had a thriving practice, and as soon as her doors opened in the morning, people and animals started to stream in.

Beth loved her work, and she got ready to start another enjoyable and fulfilling day.

That evening after the practice was closed, Beth was met at her house by her cousin, Rosalie. Rosalie was a tall, striking brunette with thick, lustrous hair that bounced and gleamed like she was in a shampoo commercial, even when she was doing something as simple as getting groceries out of her SUV.

Beth and her cousin loved to bake, and the two of them were planning to cook up a storm for the local community center’s bake sale. As the two of them walked toward the house, Beth caught sight of a burly construction worker heading toward her barn.

Rosalie cast her cousin a slyly inquiring look. “So who’s he?”

Beth frowned a little in thought. At one time or another she’d caught the name of just about everyone who was on the crew.

“I think that’s Lyle.”

“And who’s Lyle?” Beth cast an appreciative eye over him.

“He’s helping to fix up the barn—get it ready for my patients.”

Rosalie continued to watch him. “He’s working late. Any particular reason?”

“Yes—he is working late. They start early in the morning and keep going until well after dark. I think their owner might be pushing them to work around the clock.”

Rosalie’s eyebrows rose. “Their owner?”

Beth felt herself blushing. “Sorry—I think I’ve got my mind too much on work. I mean, the guy who owns the construction company might be pushing them.”

“And why would he do that?”

Beth could feel her blush growing redder. “I think maybe he likes me.”

“Oh—oh—” Rosalie made the word one long singsong syllable. “And what’s his name?”

“His name is Leo Ashe. But there’s nothing there,” Beth said hastily.

And there really wasn’t. The two of them had met at a fundraiser for a local animal shelter, and then at a few other events, and while Leo had clearly been interested in her, Beth couldn’t say that the feeling was mutual.

At that moment, Dean walked by, and he glanced over at Beth.

He gave her a shy smile, and she raised a hand in an equally shy, silent greeting.

Then he walked on.

Rosalie eyed her cousin. “And who’s that?”

“That’s Dean.” Beth felt herself blushing again. “I’m sure I told you about him. He kind of reminds me of Granddad Ian.”

Rosalie watched Dean as he disappeared into the barn.

“I can see it. He doesn’t look anything like him, but I get the vibe. Kind of old-fashioned.”

She cast a speculative eye over Beth.

“For a girl who claims to have her mind on work, you sure do seem to have been paying a lot of attention to this construction crew.”

Beth blushed yet again.

The two cousins soon got to work in the kitchen. After a long night of baking, they had a kitchen table full of cooling cookies, cupcakes, and both Rosalie’s famous pumpkin pies and Beth’s equally famous maple scones.

They put everything into plastic containers once it was all cool enough, and Rosalie gave Beth a hug before she headed for the door.

“I’ll be back tomorrow night to help you cart all this stuff over.”

Then she departed.

Beth stood looking over their handiwork, and Peyton and Growler came to sit by her feet and stare up at her.

“Nothing for you guys here,” she said. “You’ve got a well-balanced diet already. The last thing you need is too-rich people food.”

Growler licked his nose expectantly, and Peyton simply continued to stare up at her with his big yellow eyes.

“All right, you two. It’s time for bed.”

Then Beth paused—she’d nearly forgotten about the brownies.

She smiled to herself as she poured out a shallow bowl of milk and placed it on a high shelf.

“Okay, guys,” Beth said. “This is for the brownies. Promise me you won’t touch it.”

Growler licked his nose again and gave a soft whine. Peyton continued to stare.

Beth wasn’t actually worried about the two of them getting to the milk—the shelf was so high and awkwardly placed that even Peyton couldn’t get up there.

She turned out the light and went to bed.

In the morning, Beth was up before dawn as usual, and as she went out to her car, she caught sight of Dean.

He paused. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Beth said.

Then the two of them stood, staring at each other uncertainly.

Eventually, Dean raised one ungloved hand and turned toward the barn.

As Beth watched him walk away, she berated herself for her shyness.

Then she drove to work.

The day was a busy one, and Bluebell, along with a little terrier named Sancho, were now well enough to go home, much to the delight of their human companions.

The day flew by, and before she knew it, Beth was heading home to meet her cousin.

As she stood in the kitchen, looking over the table full of baked goods, she suddenly noticed that the baking pans she’d left to clean in the morning—and had forgotten to do—were somehow sparkling clean and sitting in the dish drainer.

Beth frowned.

Maybe she hadn’t forgotten to do the dishes—maybe she’d just forgotten that she’d done them already.

She thought then of the brownies and climbed up on a step stool to retrieve the bowl of milk.

But to her surprise, the bowl she expected to be heavy and full was actually light and empty—and very clean.

It looked as if it had been washed.

Beth climbed down and looked at Growler and Peyton, who were sitting on the floor by the stool and staring up at her.

She tipped the clean bowl toward them.

“Do you guys know anything about this?”

But the dog and the cat just stared at her innocently.

The empty bowl was soon forgotten, however, as Rosalie bustled in, and she and Beth bundled almost everything up and drove over to the community center.

Beth got to keep one of Rosalie’s pumpkin pies as a thank-you for the use of her kitchen.

Later that night, Beth returned home happy but exhausted.

As she prepared to go to bed, she thought once again of the empty bowl and eyed her furry companions.

Growler, she knew, was completely incapable of climbing up onto that high shelf—he was broad and squat and climbing really wasn’t his thing. And Beth had believed that Peyton was also incapable of climbing up onto that shelf, but it seemed to her that she must have been mistaken—the cat clearly could reach it despite its awkward position.

She decided to put out something she knew Peyton wouldn’t touch, and this time she knew it would still be there in the morning.

Beth got out a dish and put a scoop of peanut butter in it. Peyton hated peanut butter and would wrinkle up his nose and run away from it. A little voice in Beth’s head reminded her that mice loved peanut butter, but she pushed that objection aside. Then a sudden thought made her get out another bowl and pour a little maple syrup—left over from the scones—into a thin layer on the bottom.

“The brownies will love this,” she thought to herself, and then she pushed that idea aside also.

The point was that Peyton wouldn’t love it, and it would still be there in the morning.

Then she placed both bowls on the high shelf and went to bed.

In the morning, Beth hurried to get the dishes.

The bowl with the scoop of peanut butter was untouched, and Beth smiled in satisfaction to herself. But as she lifted down the bowl of maple syrup, she saw that it was empty—and scrupulously clean. As Beth glanced down, it seemed to her that the kitchen floor was shinier than usual, too.

She stepped down and set the two bowls on the counter, and stared at the empty syrup bowl again.

Then she turned to Peyton and Growler, who were once again watching her with interest.

“I know you guys didn’t do this,” she murmured to herself. “And if a mouse had gotten to the maple syrup, surely it wouldn’t have left everything so clean.”

The empty bowl, however, couldn’t give her any more answers, so she set it in the sink and got a quick breakfast for herself and her pets.

Then she stooped down to scratch Growler and Peyton behind the ears, and then she was out the door.

Dean happened to be passing, and Beth wondered if he knew what time she usually left the house—he often seemed to run into her—and she thought—hoped even—that it might be on purpose.

She hoped even more when he stopped and looked her full in the face.

Dean smiled and Beth could see that his eyes were green. She could also see that they crinkled nicely when he smiled.

“Hi, Beth,” he said. “It’s nice to see you. How are you this morning?”

Beth gasped—that was the most he’d ever said to her.

“I—I’m good—great,” she replied. “How are you?”

“Good.” Dean hunched his flannel-clad shoulders against the early morning cold and put his hands in his jeans’ pockets.

He seemed to be waiting expectantly.

“Well, I—I—” Beth racked her brains, but she couldn’t think of anything to say.

“I—should be getting to work,” she concluded.

Then she turned to her car and drove off, burning with embarrassment.

Dean was so handsome, so confident, so perfect, she lamented to her cousin later that day at lunch—was it any wonder that she hadn’t known what to say?

“Oh, just ask him out already,” Rosalie said.

“Ask him out?” Beth squeaked.

“Yes—do something low-key, like go get coffee.”

Beth shook her head. “I can’t. What if he says no? What if he doesn’t like me?”

“Oh, he likes you all right. From what you’ve described he’s trying to talk to you, just like you’re trying to talk to him. You’re both shy.”

“I don’t know,” Beth said. She knew Dean’s smile was a little shy, but she really couldn’t picture him being nervous about anything—or even picture herself ever talking to him again after that disaster.

But Rosalie made her promise that she would at least consider it.

The rest of the day was busy for Beth, and she stayed late to soothe some ruffled patients.

When she finally got home, the construction crew had left for the night, and Beth didn’t have a chance to see Dean.

She was relieved—she’d have the night to rest up before she tried talking to him again.

But before she went to sleep that night, she put another dish of maple syrup up on the high shelf.

Beth was wondering if the previous night was just a fluke—or if something would make the contents of the bowl disappear again.

She went to bed, and her last thoughts were of Dean—and whether she would see him tomorrow.

Somewhere in the middle of the night, Beth woke up in her dark room.

“Thank you for the dark syrup,” whispered a voice. “We love it. We didn’t like the sticky paste so much, but the syrup is wonderful—we’ve never tasted anything like it. And we’d like to offer you a gift in return.”

“How about you send me a friend?” Beth murmured.

She smiled dreamily—she knew which one, too.

She fell asleep again.

In the morning, Beth had a vague recollection of a tiny voice in the night—but now she doubted it.

As she took the bowl down from its shelf, however, she saw that it was empty once again, and her heart fluttered just a little.

Maybe she’d get that friend after all.

But Dean wasn’t outside when Beth left the house, and she even hung around outside for a few minutes trying to spot him.

Eventually, she had to give up and go to work.

Her day was busy in the best kind of way—everything seemed to go right—and she found herself in the unaccustomed position of finishing all of her appointments early. She sent her staff home, and made sure to forward the office phone to her cell—in case of emergency.

Then Beth went home herself.

Since it was still daylight, she had a look around outside the house, hoping to spot Dean—but she didn’t see him.

Disappointed, she went inside.

Beth was just fixing herself a cup of hot chocolate when there was a knock on her door.

She caught her breath—it was Dean. She just knew it.

She hurried to the door and opened it.

But instead of Dean, it was a different familiar figure.

It was Leo Ashe, the owner of the construction company Beth was using.

He gave Beth his smarmy smile, and she had to sigh in disappointment.

Then Beth upbraided herself—his smile wasn’t smarmy, and she shouldn’t be judgmental—many women in town found Leo extremely attractive.

But as he continued to grin at her, Beth couldn’t help but feel that there was something insincere about him. She’d met him at a number of charity functions, and despite his obvious interest in good works, his mind always seemed to be on money—and appearances. Beth got the feeling he did charity work because it made him look good.

She chastised herself again for her decidedly uncharitable thoughts. She didn’t know anything of the kind, and she didn’t have any right to judge him like that.

She didn’t really know what he thought.

“Hi, Beth,” Leo said. “How have you been?”

And then there was that voice—it made shivers run down her back, and not in a good way.

Leo’s voice was deep and rich—and also oily and unctuous. He’d asked her out before, and she’d turned him down because of it.

She couldn’t trust anyone with that voice.

Beth caught herself being judgmental again, and she made herself stop.

She didn’t have to go out with him—he probably just wanted to talk to her about the barn.

She made herself put a pleasant smile on her face, and she prepared to answer him politely.

But Leo went on before she could say anything—it was almost as if he hadn’t noticed her lack of response.

“How do you like the progress on your new medical wing?” Leo asked.

“It’s wonderful,” Beth replied. She’d gone out every night after dinner—and after the crew had left—to inspect the barn. It did indeed look wonderful—and it looked like it was nearly finished.

“Yes, it is marvelous,” Leo said, “even if I do say so myself.” He gave his wide grin again. “I’ve got my men working around the clock, just for you.”

“Thank you. Thank you all.”

“Of course, I choose good people, and they benefit from my leadership—and my expertise. As good as they are, I doubt they could do a thing without me. It’s almost as if I’ve done the whole thing myself.”

“Ye-es,” Beth said. She wasn’t so sure about that. “Well, thank you again. I’m sure my patients will appreciate it once it’s done—and I know I will.”

Leo continued. “That’s what I like about you. You’re an entrepreneur like me, and you’re expanding your business.”

“Well, I’m not exactly expanding it—I’m just trying to make my patients more comfortable—and I’d like to be able to keep an eye on them overnight.”

“Exactly right. You’re thinking of the customer experience.”

Beth stiffened just a little. “They’re not customers—they’re my patients. I’m a doctor of veterinary medicine.”

Leo smiled. “Yes—a businesswoman and a doctor. You’re absolutely perfect for me. Which is why—”

He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out two paper tickets. “I’d like you to go with me to the Harvest Ball next week. It’s for a good cause, and we’d look great together.”

Beth groaned inwardly. The Harvest Ball was a fundraiser for the local children’s hospital, and she already had two tickets herself. She hadn’t been planning to go—but it was, as Leo had said, a good cause—and she’d bought the tickets just to support the hospital.

She groaned because she felt bad about turning down an invitation to a charity ball—and she felt bad about turning Leo down—again.

But she had to do it.

Good cause or not, she just couldn’t go out with him.

“Leo,” Beth said. “I’m really sorry. I just can’t—”

He held up a hand. “Swamped with work. I understand. But you haven’t seen the last of me. I’ll be back again, Dr. Beth Taggart.”

As Leo walked away, he looked back at her and winked, and there was a twinkle in his eye.

Beth felt herself groaning inwardly again.

As she watched Leo disappear, she felt another eye upon her. She looked up to see Dean standing a few feet away—and he didn’t look happy.

Beth wondered if he’d heard the whole conversation, and she hoped he had—then he’d know that she’d turned Leo down.

But Dean gave her a glance that looked suspiciously like a glare and then slouched off toward the barn.

Beth thought about going after him, but then she stopped herself. She’d barely spoken to Dean, and she had no real reason to believe he might be jealous—or to believe he might want to go out with her himself. Maybe he just didn’t like his boss.

If so, Beth couldn’t blame him.

She caught herself being judgmental yet again, and turned and went into the house.

That night, as Beth was clearing up the kitchen before she went to bed, she paused as she held an empty bowl. She considered filling it with more maple syrup—again for the brownies—and then she wondered what she was doing.

First of all, brownies weren’t real—something else must have drunk the syrup.

And second, they’d sent her the wrong “friend.”

Beth shook her head. She was crazy to even be considering this. But she filled the bowl with a shallow layer of maple syrup and climbed up to reach the high shelf.

“You brought me the wrong one,” she whispered fiercely.

Then she set the bowl down.

She climbed down and headed to her room with Peyton and Growler following at her heels.

It was Friday night, but Beth didn’t feel like attempting to go anywhere. Instead, she watched TV for a little while with her two furred companions, and then, feeling tired and irritable, she went to sleep.

Somewhere, in the middle of the night, Beth woke up, and she thought she heard a tiny voice whisper in her ear.

“No, we did not!”

Beth went back to sleep.

In the morning, she was pleased to see a light dusting of snow on the ground, and after Peyton and Growler were happily chowing down on breakfast, Beth got herself a cup of coffee and went to stare out the kitchen window.

The snow was white and clean and perfect—as yet untouched by the events of the day—and the first golden rays of the morning were breaking out of a rosy sunrise.

There was a bird feeder by the window, and Beth was glad she’d remembered to fill it last night. A tiny little flock of yellow-and-black birds was feasting at the feeder, and one little guy had strayed away from the others and was perched on the windowsill.

Beth soon saw why—across the thin white coverlet of snow that blanketed the windowsill was strewn a line of birdseed—little kernels of red, yellow, and gray.

The lone bird had them all to himself, and he hopped amongst the little colored nuggets, choosing the red ones and leaving the yellow and gray ones behind.

Beth suddenly felt a lightbulb go on in her head.

The bird was choosing which seeds it wanted…

Just as the brownies had chosen maple syrup over the peanut butter…

And now she had a choice, too.

Dean had been around every day for weeks, and she hadn’t been talking to him. She didn’t know how long the brownies had been observing her, but even if it was only a few days, they would have seen Beth passing by Dean, just as they had passed up the peanut butter.

So they had brought someone else.

Beth suddenly realized how crazy her thoughts were, and she glanced behind her as if Growler and Peyton could tell what she was thinking.

But they, of course, were occupied with their food, and they had no idea that their legal guardian was a crazy lady.

Maybe she was crazy. But crazy or not, she would choose.

The weekend went by more slowly than she would have liked, but eventually Monday morning rolled around.

Beth waited by the window in the kitchen until she saw Dean’s flannel-clad form—still without a coat—appear.

Then she hurried out into the cold.

“Dean!” she cried. “Dean!”

He stopped and turned toward her.

His face was wary—even suspicious.

“Dean!” Beth said. “I need to talk to you!”

He waited where he was, and Beth rushed up to him.

“Your boss—Leo,” she said breathlessly. “He asked me out on Friday.”

Dean’s expression tightened just a little, but he said nothing.

Beth continued. “He asked me out to the Harvest Ball. But I don’t want to go with him. I want to go with you.”

A look of astonishment spread over Dean’s face.

Then a smile quirked at the corners of his mouth, and a twinkle gleamed in his eye.

Beth felt relieved—and elated.

Dean wasn’t unhappy at all—he was pleased.

Beth took out the tickets that nestled in her coat pocket.

“I’ve got tickets to the ball, too. It’s next week. And I’d like you to go with me. What do you say?”

Dean’s face went very blank, but there was still just a hint of a twinkle in his eye.

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Beth found herself smiling in response.

She liked his sense of humor already.

The two of them ended up going out for coffee after Beth finished at the office and Dean got off work for the night.

The low-key date was a success, and after Beth got home, she left out a slice of Rosalie’s pumpkin pie for the brownies.

She felt they deserved it.

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

© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Piviso/Pixabay

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

Thanks very much for reading!

Spooky Tricks — New Short Story

Spooky Tricks

Spooky Tricks

Catherine Mesick

On Halloween night, there was a knock at the door.

This wasn’t unusual—there had been knocks on the door all evening.

I stopped at the mirror in the hall, adjusted my tall black witch’s hat to a more rakish angle and smoothed the tresses of my long, black wig.

“Johanna, you are one terrifying witch,” I said to myself.

I adjusted the wart on my nose for good measure and then grabbed up my bowl of candy and hurried to the door.

I threw the front door open and gave my best witch’s cackle.

But instead of a group of trick-or-treaters in adorable costumes, there was a grown man standing on my porch, apparently all alone.

I stared at him.

He was tall with thick dark hair and very dark eyes. He was wearing black jeans and a very tight T-shirt that showed off his muscular physique.

Not that I noticed.

“Hi,” he said. “I’m Dave.”

“Hi, Dave,” I replied. “You look a little old to be trick-or-treating.”

He appeared to be about my age—in his mid-twenties—and though he definitely wasn’t old, he was too old to be going door to door for candy.

“Oh, no—I’m not trick-or-treating.” His smile was boyish, and it lit up his whole face.

He paused expectantly, and I tried not to get distracted by that smile while I racked my brain trying to figure out what this handsome stranger was doing on my porch.

He was good-looking, so it was possible he was selling some product or other. Or maybe he was stumping for a political candidate.

Whatever he wanted, I wasn’t interested in buying anything.

Reluctantly, I began to close the door.

“I’m sorry. Not today—”

Dave held out a hand. “Wait! I—I’m Dave.”

“You already said that.”

“But I thought you would understand.”

He stepped closer and lowered his voice. “I’m a witch.”

He smelled really good—like the woods and the outdoors—but I ordered myself not to be distracted.

“You’re Dave the witch?” I said.

“Yes.”

“Oh—okay. I get it.” I opened the door a little wider and stepped out onto the porch.

This was clearly some kind of prank. He was some teen’s older brother or somebody’s uncle or something.

“Very funny, kids!” I said. “You can come out now!”

As I looked up and down the darkening street, I could see the pink and orange of the setting sun, and a few streetlights were popping on. There was no one on my street at the moment, but I could hear the shouts of children in the distance. My lawn was strangely full of fireflies, but other than that, there was nothing out of the ordinary.

I did remember that there was a hiding place nearby, however.

I turned to Dave.

“Are they under the porch?”

A look of bewilderment crossed his handsome face.

“Is who under the porch?”

“Your accomplices.”

“My—what?” He shook his head. “I’m Dave. I’m a witch.”

He said the words as if they explained something.

“All right, Dave the witch,” I said. “I can’t figure out what’s going on here, so I’ll take the bait. What do you want?”

It was a night of fun after all—I figured I could play along a little.

Dave’s eyes roamed over my face, and I found myself wishing that I wasn’t wearing green makeup and a fake wart.

“You really don’t know, do you?” he said softly.

“I’ve got to go with no,” I said.

Dave sighed. “I just assumed. I thought you would be one of—”

He sighed again. “Never mind. I supposed I should begin with an introduction. I’m Dave Crespo.”

He held out his hand.

I took it. It was warm and strong.

I hesitated for just a moment, but Dave didn’t seem threatening—just intriguing.

“I’m Johanna Bee.”

“Bee?” Dave said.

“Yes—it used to be something much longer and hard to pronounce, so my grandfather cut it down to just the first three letters. Now it’s just ‘Bee.’ ”

“I see.”

I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, so I just waited for what he would say next.

Dave seemed lost in thought.

“Johanna,” he said at last, “could I tell you the whole story? It’ll be quick, I promise. And maybe you could help me make sense of it all.”

I glanced around. A group of kids that had already been to my house ran down the street—I recognized the little girl with the elaborate, orange-and-white Bride of Frankenstein hairdo. Behind the children came two moms pushing strollers.

“All right,” I said, closing the door behind me. “I have to admit I’m interested now. And I guess I’ll be safe enough with you out on the porch.”

“Of course you will. I’m a witch and a gentleman.”

I glanced at Dave’s face to see if he was kidding, but he seemed to be perfectly serious.

“No spooky tricks?” I said.

“No spooky tricks.”

I took my candy bowl and sat down on my porch swing.

As Dave settled his sleek, black-clad form next to me, I wished I weren’t wearing such a ridiculous costume.

I thought longingly of the skimpy, sexy costumes I’d seen hanging on pegs at the Halloween store.

I wished now that I’d bought one of those.

Almost.

As surreptitiously as I could, I removed the wart from my nose.

Then a sharp breeze kicked up and swirled around us, and I was glad I wasn’t wearing a tiny, barely there outfit. We’d been lucky enough to have a pleasant Halloween night, but it was still October, and it wasn’t exactly balmy—plenty of the children were wearing jackets over their costumes.

Dave shifted a little, causing the swing to creak, and I glanced at his marvelous, T-shirt-clad torso.

“Would you like a blanket or a jacket or something?”

Dave shrugged. “I’m good. I spelled myself against the cold.”

“Naturally.”

Dave sighed. “So here it goes. I’m a witch—”

“Which you said already.”

He shot me an irritated glance.

“Sorry,” I said. “No more interruptions.”

“So to make a long story short,” Dave said, “there’s a curse on my family, and I came here tonight to break it.”

I frowned. “A curse?”

I was startled—that wasn’t at all what I’d expected to hear. I didn’t know what I had expected, but somehow that wasn’t it.

Dave nodded grimly. “A curse was placed on my great-grandmother many years ago. Any witch in our family line is incapable of falling in love.”

I was startled again.

“You can’t fall in love?”

Dave shook his head. “I have no idea what it feels like.”

“So you can’t get married?”

“Oh, we can get married—we just won’t be in love.”

I blinked. “That’s awful.”

Dave simply nodded.

“What about your parents?” I said. “Weren’t they in love?”

“My dad is most definitely—at least he says he is. But he’s not the witch—my mom is. And I know she likes my dad. ‘Like’ is something I can understand—and she can, too. But she’s always said she wishes she could be truly in love with him.”

“Are you sure—” I said suddenly.

Then I stopped.

“What?” Dave said.

“Are you sure it’s actually a spell and not just something normal? Unfortunately, there are a lot of couples in which one partner is more invested than another. Maybe they just need some counseling.”

Dave shook his head vehemently. “No. It’s a curse—like I said. Another witch—a male witch—placed a curse on my great-grandmother when she spurned his advances. He said if she didn’t love him, she would never love another—and neither would her children. There was a hole in her heart ever after that. She knew something was missing. They all did—and so do I. I can feel it right now—it’s like something I’ve lost that I desperately need.”

“All right,” I said. “I believe you.”

And I really did. There was a desperation—and a desolation—in his eyes that was hard to discount.

He truly did believe he was missing something he needed.

And he still didn’t seem dangerous—or crazy—just intriguing.

In fact, he was just the type I usually fell for—soulful.

Or not so soulful, since he couldn’t fall in love.

I sighed. “So what makes you think I can help you?”

Dave gestured to the lawn.

“Well, the fireflies.”

The front yard was indeed still full of fireflies—and none of the neighbors’ houses were similarly lit up.

“Walk me through it,” I said. “Just in case I don’t get the fireflies thing.”

“I went to a seer—someone who can see things that are…beyond.”

“Like the future?”

Dave nodded. “Yes—the future sometimes and also the past—and the present. Someone who can see truths in a realm beyond this one.”

“I see.”

Dave gave me an ironic smile. “I can see that you don’t. But let’s just say the seer has mystical powers.”

“Is she a witch, too?”

“No. A seer can be a witch. But in this case she isn’t.”

“And your seer saw fireflies?” I said.

“Yes, she did. She said I should follow the trail of them. They led right from my house to yours.”

Dave frowned. “You’re not a witch, are you? Despite the costume.”

“No, I’m not a witch.”

“You see, this complicates things. The seer said I would find someone at the end of the trail tonight who could help me. And then she said, ‘Someone must sacrifice for a witch.’”

Dave turned to look me full in the face. “I thought that meant you would be a witch, and maybe you would sacrifice something, like a crow.”

I made a face.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said quickly. “I didn’t like the idea, either. I’m not the kind to sacrifice anything—not even birds. I definitely don’t do that stuff. But the curse was placed by dark magic, so I thought maybe dark magic might be required to lift it. Or, if not dark exactly, then at least murky.”

He gave me a small smile. “I was hoping for murky rather than dark.”

“Well, I can’t do anything like that,” I said. “Fireflies or not. So what do you suggest?”

“Maybe you could show me what love is.”

“That is the worst pick-up line ever.”

But his face was sincere, and it seemed to me that it grew a little red.

“So you can feel embarrassment,” I said.

“Of course I can feel embarrassment,” Dave said. “And—other things. Just not love.”

I sighed.

“Maybe I can help you think of something tomorrow. Perhaps over coffee or lunch?”

Dave shook his head. “It has to be tonight.”

“Why?”

“Tonight is a special night. Many things are possible on Halloween night that aren’t possible at other times. The spiritual energy is different tonight—more powerful. If the curse is to be broken, it must be tonight.”

He paused. “Can you help me?”

I didn’t see how, but I felt a strange tug toward this so-called witch.

“Well,” I said. “I do have a yard full of fireflies. Let’s see if we can come up with something together.”

Dave smiled.

“So what next?”

I glanced around. “I doubt we’ll solve much of anything sitting on my porch. Let’s go for a walk.”

The two of us left the swing and the porch, and as we walked down the short path to the street, I had a sudden urge to take his hand.

But I didn’t.

The fireflies still glimmered softly in my yard as we began to walk, but the sunset was fading fast and the sky was rapidly deepening to black.

There was plenty of light, however, as the streetlights were coming on, and each one threw out a welcoming arc of illumination.

The light apparently wasn’t quite enough, as Dave soon stumbled on a crack in the sidewalk, and nearly tumbled face-first into the street.

I held out a steadying hand. “Careful.”

Dave quickly righted himself, but he looked shaken.

“Thank you, Johanna. I, uh, I don’t usually—”

“No explanation necessary,” I said. “Sometimes accidents happen.”

He grinned sheepishly. “They do indeed.”

I happened to notice once again that he had an extraordinarily nice smile.

“So is there anything else you can tell me about the curse?” I asked as we started walking again.

“Like what?”

“Like—did the seer tell you anything else about how to break it?”

Dave shook his head. “Her advice was basically just to find you, and then—”

He shrugged. “Well, I was kind of assuming you would know what to do.”

“I see,” I said.

“But there is one other thing. The seer didn’t tell me about it, though. It was my grandmother.”

“What is it?”

“My grandmother heard it from her mother—my great grandmother—the one who was originally cursed. She said that the curse can be broken retroactively.”

“What does that mean?” I said.

Dave frowned. “Maybe I’m not phrasing that properly. If the curse is broken tonight, it will be broken all along the timeline. All those relationships in my family in which one person was in love and the other wasn’t will be fixed. All those marriages will become true love matches. And my mom will finally be free to love my father for real.”

“Wow,” I said.

“That’s why I have to do this,” Dave said. “It’s not just about me. I’ll be saving generations of my family.”

“Wow,” I said again.

We walked on, and Dave suddenly tripped once more. This time I didn’t see a crack in the sidewalk—it looked perfectly smooth and even. But Dave went tumbling face-first and nearly cracked his head on the concrete.

Luckily, he took a few stumbling steps and put out a hand just in time.

I hurried over to him, alarmed. “Are you okay?”

Dave reddened and straightened up. “Yes, of course. I just—”

He glanced back and saw, as I had, that there was nothing on the sidewalk to trip over.

“I guess I just tripped over my own feet,” he finished.

“Please be careful,” I said. “That’s the second time you nearly face-planted into the ground.”

Dave grew even redder and then he went unexpectedly pale.

He stopped walking, and his face was serious in the lamplight.

“There’s one other thing. Something my grandmother and the seer both said.”

“What?”

“They said the curse will seek to protect itself. They said it knows when one of our line is working to end it, and it will work to destroy us rather than allow itself to be broken.”

I felt a chill run through me.

“I’m sure that’s not true,” I said quickly. “I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

But Dave and I turned as one to look back at the smooth, unmarked sidewalk.

“We’ll both be more careful from now on,” I said. “I’m sure it won’t happen again.”

We walked on.

“So what’s in your repertoire?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“When you’re not guarding yourself against the cold and following fireflies, what kind of spells do you do?”

“Well, I’m on level three of my training. I guess that wouldn’t mean much to you since you’re not a witch, but it means that I’ve advanced to learning the highest level of magic my particular group practices. I’m adept at potions, incantations, rituals, and spells involving the use of wands and familiars. I’ve even begun work on levitation and psychokinesis.”

“Levitation? Psychokinesis?” I said.

“You know—using my mind to move myself and other objects.”

“Sounds useful.”

“It is. But I’m only just beginning.” Dave glanced at me. “Why the interest in my spells?”

“Since I’m the chosen one,” I said, “at least for the night, I thought I should try to figure this out. Maybe find out what’s in your arsenal that we can use.”

Dave looked startled. “What do you mean for the night? I am a witch and a gentleman. I don’t go in for casual…anything. You were chosen because you’re special. And you have a special purpose far beyond tonight.”

He looked at me, and his face was again serious.

“If not for this curse, I could see myself—”

He broke off.

“It’s just that I find myself drawn to you in more ways than one—”

He stopped again.

“But you couldn’t love me?” I said.

“No. Johanna, I—”

“Yes?”

“I should tell you—there’s another reason why this is so important tonight. I can’t—I’m not like the others in my family. I’m not even like my parents. If this doesn’t work out—if this curse can’t be broken, then I’ll never get married myself.”

“Never?” I said.

“No. I can’t get married if I’m not in love. Even if I don’t actually know what that is.”

“I can understand that.”

Dave looked at me. “You can?”

“Yes. And you—and I—are not alone. There are other people like that. They’re called hopeless romantics.”

Dave chuckled. “I’ve heard of those.”

“So let’s say this does work out tonight,” I said. “And somehow we manage to break the curse. How will you know it’s broken?”

“Both my grandmother and the seer said there will be a sound like the breaking of chains.”

I smiled. “And then you’ll be free to fall in love with the first person you see?”

Dave smiled back. “Something like that. Actually I wouldn’t mind if—”

There was a breaking sound then, and I looked around, startled.

But it wasn’t a curse breaking. Instead, the glass in the streetlamp next to us suddenly shattered, and the bulb inside it shattered, too.

Glass shards flew everywhere, and Dave and I turned to shield our faces.

Then there was an ominous creaking sound.

Dave had just enough time to jump out of the way before the entire lamppost came crashing down toward him.

“Whoa,” he said.

He was visibly rattled.

I rushed to his side.

“Are you okay?”

Dave nodded. “That was just—unexpected.”

I placed a comforting hand on his arm. “That’s certainly something you don’t see every day.”

I looked down at the fallen streetlamp, and an unpleasant thought popped into my head.

“It’s the curse,” Dave said, giving voice to my fears. “It’s trying to protect itself.”

“No,” I said hastily. “It was just a really strange accident.”

Dave looked at me. “You think it’s the curse, too. I can see it in your eyes.”

“No—” I said again.

But Dave gave me a wry smile.

“At least I know you believe in the curse now.”

“Maybe we should get off the street,” I said.

“I think that would be an excellent idea,” Dave replied.

“Let’s go to a coffee shop or some other public place,” I said. “I feel like the curse is more likely to attack if we’re isolated. A crowd might be safer.”

I glanced around. There were fewer and fewer trick-or-treaters all the time, and other passersby were becoming rarer, too.

Dave looked a little embarrassed. “I, uh, didn’t drive here—I actually walked.”

“That’s okay. We’ll go back to my house, and we’ll take my car. I’ll get my phone, too. Maybe we can do some internet research on how to break a curse.”

Dave paused in a driveway we were passing and looked at me in the lamplight.

“I really do appreciate this. You don’t know me, you don’t know anything about me, and you’re still going to help me—even though this whole curse thing is new to you. I have to say—”

There was a screech then as a car came careening around the corner.

It was headed straight for us—and more specifically toward Dave, who was still standing in the driveway.

The car surged toward him, and he seemed rooted to the spot, staring at it.

The car’s headlights made right for him, and I acted without thinking.

I pushed him out of the way.

I watched the headlights zooming up to me.

And then they suddenly stopped.

I glanced over.

Dave was standing with his knees bent and his arms outstretched.

He appeared to be under great strain.

“Hurry,” he gasped. “I can’t hold it much longer.”

I glanced at the car—it was completely motionless, just a few bare inches away from me.

I quickly scrambled out of the way.

Dave pulled his hands back, and the car leaped forward, bouncing over the driveway and careening over the lawn of a nearby house.

Then the car lost its momentum and came to a stop.

There was no one inside.

“What?” I said. “How did you—what just happened?”

At the same time, there was a tremendous cracking sound.

Dave rushed toward me and grabbed me in a hug.

He spun me around.

“You did it!”

“Did what?”

Dave set me down, and I stared at him breathlessly.

His eyes were shining, and there was a glow about him that hadn’t been there before.

He looked like a man transformed.

I looked back at the stationary car.

“Dave, what’s going on?”

“You did it! You broke the curse! The curse threw everything it had at me, and your sacrifice shattered it.”

“Sacrifice? What sacrifice? I’m fine.”

“Yes—but you’re only fine because I saved you right back. You pushed me out of the way when I surely would have been killed and saved me. And you put yourself in harm’s way. You sacrificed yourself—for a witch. Just like the seer said.”

“But then—” I was still having a hard time wrapping my head around what had just happened.

Dave took my hands. “You did it. You really did. You’ve saved me and my entire family.”

“The curse really is broken?” I said.

“Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

“But how do you know?” I said.

“Because I feel like I’m in love right now.”

He looked at me in the lamplight, and there really did seem to be love in his eyes.

“But how can you be sure?” I said. “Especially since you’ve never felt love before?”

Dave grinned. “I know it—I really do. And I’m perfectly willing to take a chance that I’m falling in love with you.”

“You are?” I said.

“Yes. I’m totally sure about that.”

“No spooky tricks?” I said.

“No spooky tricks.”

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

© 2019 by Catherine Mesick

Image by Irina Alexandrovna/Shutterstock

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

Thanks very much for reading!