Where Paws Can’t Touch the Ground
by Heather J. Frederick
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
“What was that for, Tom?” Jared dumps me on his desk and pushes himself toward the air vent.
I snag my blanket so I don’t float away. I have to stop this! What would happen to Sierra if the Queen were dead?
I’d found her starving, crawling with fleas, hiding from the wild gangs under a pile of garbage. A ship’s ratter, she’d been kicked off her last berth for not staying out of the kitchen, ruined by her weakness for fish guts. She smelled delicious.
I wanted her as my mate. But she’d clearly been in heat for days. She was exhausted. Terrified.
“You’ve no reason to trust me,” I told her, “but I know a safe place. With food.”
“Are there fish?”
What a strange question. “No. But there aren’t any other cats, either.”
That seemed to be the answer she was hoping for. I’d only recently adopted Jared, and I don’t know why I shared him — maybe it was obvious Sierra needed a good meal, maybe I was still hoping to have her.
Sierra was grateful, as predicted. And worth the wait! Then with no warning, and no goodbye, she disappeared after only a few weeks. She was obviously... well, in a kittenly way. When I heard she was with the Queen, I was heartbroken. I thought my pain could never be worse.
Unless, as I now suspect, Jared tore her from me so that I could someday help him track his prey.
My stomach feels like a ball of hair. Will he hold me before him like a shield as he attacks the Queen? Or toss me at the guards, knowing nothing is more surprising than a projectile cat?
Will he sacrifice me, the way he sacrificed my happiness, to reach his goals?
What is he doing? He’s removed the grate. He holds up a spray bottle, like the cat pee neutralizer, and squirts it. A lot. But I’ve been careful, I swear. You try emptying your bladder in mid-air.
I push myself up but lurch tips-over-tails. This strange new world has me undone. My feet want to run toward the door, but my hate wants to launch claws at his face. I tuck myself into a ball, hoping my paws will find something solid and my stomach will flip itself right-side in.
Unfortunately, time moves against me.
Jared breezes by me and returns to his tablet. He taps and stares at the vent.
“Come on,” he mutters. “It worked the first time.”
What did? The fan clicks on and there’s a shift in the currents. I feel blessed relief as my lungs embrace pure, filtered nothing. And then fish. And catnip.
Of course. We’re next door to Sierra... And apparently now we’re breathing her air. But why?
As I drift helplessly toward the flat-screen television, I have a horrible feeling I won’t solve this mystery in time.
Jared picks up his gun. “Tom,” he says, his voice casual, “let’s take a walk. The air’s about to get bad in here. “
How could it get worse? And besides, there’s no walking here. I’m flailing, out of control.
Nonetheless, he sweeps me in his arm and launches us toward the door. I suspect where he’s taking us and, now that he has a gun, it’s the last place I want to go. I claw at the air, scream for help, all for naught.
In seconds, we’re in the empty hall. Alone. Where’s a dog when you need one?
He pulls himself along the wall using handles to the Queen’s door, the gun now holstered at his hip.
I keep thrashing. Whatever sinister purpose he wants me for, I won’t allow it. But when I bite his hand, he wrenches it free. I spit soap off my tongue. Yuck, lemon.
“What’s gotten into you, Tom? I’m the good guy.”
They all say that.
The elevator opens. The white-furred man pushes himself out and grabs a handle, fluidly moving down the corridor. Like a cat, I daresay, or like I will, once I conquer this environment. Just give me time and an empty stomach.
Jared nods, as if expecting him.
Henry stops. Again with the bold, forward glance my way. “You look a little green, cat.”
Jared shifts his grip, nearly folding me in half, and that’s all it takes. Some of my breakfast lands on Henry’s pants. Some of it floats away, thick bubbles of partially digested kibble looking not much different than it had yesterday.
Henry growls. Jared shrugs. I feel much better.
Jared passes Henry a wad of paper. Henry waves a ringed finger in front of the Queen’s door, which whispers open. He moves on, wiping his thighs.
Leaving us with a room of dead people. I’m too late.
Jared pulls us inside, gun drawn. The Queen’s suite is bigger than ours. I’d pictured something like a palace, all glittering lights and columns, but of course her walls are the same metallic gray, her furniture bolted down, or up, or sideways. There’s a bed on the wall, and another on the ceiling.
I blink, and I’m not even sure which is the floor anymore. There are three men, each floating belly up like Jared’s goldfish, which he never remembered to feed. At the breeze caused by us opening the door, one’s head bumps into the faucet. The odor of fish and catnip overwhelms.
But there’s no Queen, no Sierra. Maybe I can still save her!
Jared spits out one of those words that have no meaning to cats. While he’s distracted, I wriggle out and aim toward the wall, sure that this time it will work. As I slip free, I sink my back claws in his face and push off.
I misjudge the angle but sail through the air and land at the edge of the mattress. I’ve mastered locomotion. Jared can’t use me now.
Jared shakes his head. Blood bubbles away. His expression — what I can see of it through the scratches — is pained.
“Tom! How can you do this to me?” He sounds genuinely hurt. Then he moves to the bodies, letting me be.
I have a sudden realization. Whatever his ultimate intentions, maybe I’m not part of his plot. Maybe I’m just... his pet.
I feel an odd stirring of gratitude. I could let him be, if only he weren’t a traitor.
I wish he’d left me at home. I don’t want to be here. But now that I am, I can’t let him kill the Queen; even though Sierra left me, I owe her that much. I would do anything for her.
“One extra litter box, and I’ll never piss in your closet again.”
He shakes his head, dumb as always to my meaning. He probes the men’s necks, pushes them into the middle of the room, and tapes their hands together. One of the men is generously-furred around the wrists. I feel bad for him.
The room’s only other door is on the wall across from me. Jared points the gun at it. I remind myself, nothing is more surprising than a projectile cat.
The door opens from inside, releasing stale sea-stench. Jared raises his gun, and I launch.
As I near his head, claws out, I hear the Queen’s familiar, melodious voice. “Thank God you’re finally here. They’ve had me for days.”
“You’re safe now, Your Highness,” Jared says.
I’m just beginning to consider that I may have been wrong when I land. In all the excitement, I forget to resheathe my claws.
“OWWWWW, Tom, get off me!”
All things considered, Jared says, I performed well under pressure. I’m hoping he didn’t notice that I had thought he was trying to kill the Queen.
But of course, the Queen had.
“Your cat tried to save me... from you! How heroic!”
Jared blushes, as if it were his fault. Which, really, it is. “I don’t think he realized you were kidnapped.”
“He seems pretty smart to me,” she says.
Have I mentioned how cats love the Queen?
“Then he has no excuse,” he says. “We watch the news every night.”
Of course, that type of thing isn’t what catches a cat’s attention.
I drift over to Sierra, eager to reconnect with my former love. She’s resting in a snug carrier whose walls, floor, and ceiling, lined with white satin, are clearly designed for this up-less world. She looks as sleek and fit as always. I press my nose to her front window.
“Hello, Sierra,” I purr.
“Hello, Tom,” she says. “You were very brave.”
My heart flutters. I ask after the kittens. She tells me they each have a room at the palace. I’m happy for them. Now that I’ve met the Queen, forgiving Sierra for leaving me is easier.
I tell her about life with Jared. I mention my panic zone. “I hope you have something like it,” I say.
“After this I’ll think about it. But gym socks will be hard to find.”
When I mention the vet, she shudders.
“I’ve been there, too.” She leans back and points to a pale, pink line on her belly. “Do you have one of these?”
It’s funny. Underneath the fish, she still smells nice... but for some reason, the old spark just isn’t there.
Sierra admits that Jared did give her to the Queen, but it was only because the Queen wanted me first. Jared wouldn’t let her have me.
I wouldn’t have lasted two seconds with satin sheets.
A two-leg in a blue uniform comes to replace the prisoners’ duct tape with metal bracelets. When the tape comes off, Furry Hands screams like a kitten. Knowing he kidnapped the Queen, I decide he deserves it.
Jared explains everything to the man in blue — following the Queen to the station, the knockout gas he’d sent by switching the air currents, the secret message he’d sent via Henry so she’d hide in the bedroom while he poisoned the kidnappers. He gives me no credit at all.
I was right about Henry, who has disappeared. He was helpful — for a price — but he also helped the kidnappers. Something a cat who’s struggled for survival can sympathize with, although I don’t have to like it, and I certainly didn’t like him. Jared should learn to trust my instincts.
“Always better when the mission’s a success, eh?” the man asks Jared. “Maybe you should thank your good-luck cat.”
Jared wipes at the blood on his face. “My good luck cat owes me an apology.”
I raise my hackles and spit, knowing my words will fall on ignorant ears. “I owe you nothing, human. You tricked me with your conniving lies and misdirections. If not for me, you’d be friendless.”
Jared reaches over and smooths my fur. “Just kidding, Major Tom. You’re a good cat and a good citizen. I’m lucky to have you.”
Maybe he’s not entirely hopeless.
Copyright © 2018 by Heather J. Frederick