by Searska GreyRaven
The street lights were just flicking on as I walked up the sidewalk toward a dimly lit industrial building. Well, dimly lit for a human. My feline eyes had no problem with it. I reached the entrance and hesitated, one paw clutching a thermal bag while the other hovered over a faintly glowing doorbell. I tried to take a slow, even breath. It came in ragged and left even worse. Damn it, I had it bad. Cats are supposed to be aloof.
I was anything but aloof.
You can do this, Cal. Breathe. Just ask her. The worst she can do is say no, right?
One hand-tossed anchovy and mushroom pizza, which is also how I like my pizza, and maybe sometime, if you’re available and you, you know, swing my way, we could split one together?
Even in my head, that sounded lame.
“God, I’m bad at this,” I muttered. My breath fogged the air, reminding me that the pizza in my arm wasn’t getting any warmer and I needed to quit stalling.
I tapped the buzzer.
A speaker near the door flicked on. “Hello?”
My heart skipped a beat. It was her. I mean, I knew it was probably going to be her, but another guy, a human, would sometimes answer the bell. But there were always two pizzas when that happened. Just one pizza tonight.
“Fantasma Pizza delivery,” I announced brightly.
“Oh awesome. I’ll be right down.” The speaker clicked off.
I waited a few minutes in silence, trying to slow my heart to a reasonable speed. My ears flattened anxiously and it was a struggle to get them to stand back upright. From the other side of the door came the stutter of footsteps and a sudden metallic clatter. The door knob twisted and suddenly, there she was. The most beautiful neko-form I’d ever seen. Sleek black fur covered her from head to toe, her whiskers were long and bowed, and her tail was long and tipped with only a small patch of white.
I stood straighter and held out the box I was carrying. A pair of green eyes studied me and my box for a moment, glittering hungrily. She took the box between her paws, claws scraping the cardboard, and grinned. Her lab coat fluttered as she shifted the box to one hand so she could reach into her pocket. Her paw pads are pink. Perfect seashell pink. They looked chafed, though. I wondered if it was just winter, or maybe whatever her current lab project was making her paw pads chap like that.
“That was really fast. You’re quicker than the sub place!” she said, pulling a pen from her pocket as well as a few carefully folded bills.
Her lab coat rustled closed, sending a zephyr of scent across my nose. Gods, she smelled like coconut and honey and something else. Jojoba? I swallowed back the urge to inhale deeper. Not polite to flehman at customers, no matter how lovely they smell. My hands clenched as I resisted the urge to smooth my fur. There was nothing sleek or sinuous about me. I was all wiry limbs, scruffy pale fur, and mis-matched eyes. I barely passed as feminine most days. It didn’t help that, as a neko-form, I lacked a few of the very obvious characteristics of a human female, like breasts. Don’t ask me why. I’m a pizza delivery girl, not a geneticist.
Say something, Cal! She’s talking to you!
“It, uhh, it was a slow night,” I replied lamely. So lame. I am so lame.
“I didn’t think pizza places had slow Friday nights,” she said, sounding amused. That feline grin widened and I swallowed. My heart was making a fantastic effort to pound straight through my ribs.
“We, ahh, also prioritize regulars,” I lied.
She laughed. She had a wonderful laugh. Jellicle cats, as a certain T. S. Eliot said, are merry and bright, and she was no exception. “I appreciate it. My experiments are at a critical stage, and I can’t leave. And I can’t leave Michael alone too long with my work. He’s a good test-tube jockey, but he’s no scientist.”
She scribbled a signature on the receipt slip and handed it back to me, along with tip money. The scrawling signature was almost illegible, but I knew who she was. Deanne Novak, scientist, inventor, and, I suspected, half angel. No mere mortal had eyes like that. Even for a jellicle, she had striking eyes. “Michael? Fellow scientist?” I asked. “Intern? Boyfriend?” I mentally kicked myself. Smooth, Cal, real smooth.
She snorted. “Intern. Definitely professional only. Ugh, no, I couldn’t stand to date him. I mean, I eat my share of junk food, but he seems to thrive on it. Disgusting. But as long as he keeps his chicken nuggets off my experiments, I can put up with him.” She sighed, and her ebon tail flicked smartly, just once, behind her. “Just a little longer. His internship ends in a couple of weeks and I won’t have to smell his greasy leftovers again.”
“Just, uh, what do you study in there?” I asked, trying to peek around her and into the lab.
She blocked my view, arm bracing against the door frame and her ears backed. “It’s really technical. I wouldn’t expect—I mean, not that you’re stupid, but—it’s just very complicated and…umm, I’m sure you’ve got other deliveries to make.”
For the first time since I’d first met her three weeks ago, I felt a crack in my hopelessly lovesick crush. I twisted my expression into something I hoped looked polite. “We can’t all be scientists,” I replied. “Or ghost hunters.”
She blinked and frowned. “Wait, how do you know about—”
I gestured with my now-empty hot bag to the mailbox next to the door, where the latest Ghost Hunting Monthly was half-falling out.
“Just out of curiosity, if a ghost has unfinished business that can’t be finished—”
“That isn’t what we do here,” she insisted defensively. “That’s…that’s not even mine, I swear. Michael and his juvenile obsession! It’s not even real science. Definitely not real science.”
I shrugged and tried to make it look nonchalant. But my tail was thrashing, my ears were backed, and I could feel the fur along my spine standing at full attention. “Sure. Whatever. I’m just a pizza delivery girl. What do I know about particle physics and alternate dimensions? Enjoy the pizza.”
I left without another word. My heart had stopped racing and settled into my chest like a caged bird that had lost the will to sing. Never crush on customers. It’s a rule, and a damned good one. You’re just a delivery girl, some rand-o chick. A means to an end, not the kind of person someone like her dates, even if she swung that way. Someone that perfect? Gotta be straight. Or maybe indifferent. You’re growling down the wrong hole, Cal. Probably better you learn now rather than later.
My rear-view mirror shivered, and it wasn’t because the roads were rough. Through the static of my radio, I could hear a low chuckle.
I snarled and turned my radio off.
* * *
A week passed before Fantasma Pizzeria got another order from Ms. Novak. Sanchez, the owner, was in the kitchen, throwing pizza dough into the air and spinning it while Lilu took calls.
“Large anchovy and mushroom for You Know Who at You Know Where. Ross, you finished eating yet?” she asked. Her enamel bracelets clattered and jingled as she set the phone down on the counter. Pure human, with dark hair and darker eyes, she looked like a smaller version of her uncle, Sanchez. Well, smaller and female. Same solid, stocky build, same warm smile. She liked her pizza with hot peppers and sausage, with the crust so thin it was almost an afterthought. Part taco, part pizza, the best of both worlds, she’d said.
I sighed. “I got it. Ross will get lost. That complex is a maze.”
“Rats are good at mazes!” Ross hollered from the break room down the hall. “And besides, I wanna meet the chick you been moonin’ over.”
“Shut it, Wormtail,” I muttered. “I ain’t moonin’. I’m over it.” Ross had always been a bit of an asshole, but ever since he’d found out that I wasn’t exactly straight, he’d become truly insufferable. But it was always this side of a firing offense, and Sanchez didn’t have a backup driver, so Ross had stuck around. I wasn’t exactly swimming in options either, so I hadn’t left.
Besides, I was here first, damn it.
“Sure, sure,” he said, coming into view and jamming a mouthful of olive and onion pizza into his maw. The crust was so floppy that he had to fold it over to eat it. He licked his greasy fingers, then smoothed the dishwater-colored fur on his head. “Maybe she’s looking for a little one-on-one with a real man.” He winked at me.
I scowled back at him.
“Don’t cats eat mice?” Lilu commented.
Ross snickered. “If I’m lucky.”
I glared at him. This was worse than usual. Then, I smelled it: the stale stink of alcohol on his breath. Either he was hung over or had a beer before his shift. With all the other scents in the pizzeria, Sanchez and Lilu wouldn’t have noticed. I couldn’t let him drive like this.
“I got it,” I said. “I already know the way and Ross is still on break.”
It was Ross’s turn to scowl. “You’re wasting your time, kitty cat.”
I zipped up my jacket and reached for my keys. “Hope springs eternal. We’ve got the same taste in pizza, so that’s something.”
Ross’s eyes narrowed. “That’s assuming she’s even your type,” he snickered. “Poor Cal, falling in love with a straight girl.”
“Ross, you shut your hole, or I let her take you apart,” Lilu warned.
“You know,” he slurred, “I always wanted to ask, is it a cat thing or a lesbian thing, liking fish on a pie?”
Lilu and I stared at Ross, stunned.
Lilu recovered first. “Ross! Line, crossed. Apologize, right now or so help me—”
“Pfft, right. What’s Caliban gonna do? Sic her ghosts on me?”
I didn’t even realize I had moved. Ross was suddenly pinned to the wall in front of me, his faded Fantasma polo collar bunched between my fists, limp pizza splattered across the floor, and his naked tail writhing against my legs. The stink of alcohol gagged me, but I didn’t let go.
“What did you say?” I snarled. Ross flailed, knocking the yellow-tinted glasses I wore to hide my odd-colored eyes off my face.
“God damn it, Cal, drop him. Ross, you apologize. Now!” Sanchez said, stepping out of the kitchen. I dropped Ross and he hit the floor with a thud.
“I’m sorry,” Ross sneered, “that you’re a freak.”
“Sanchez, he’s drunk,” I said flatly. I wanted to find my glasses, but I’d heard them shatter. Wherever they were, they wouldn’t be doing me any good now.
“You lying little b—”
Sanchez didn’t give Ross a chance to finish. The grizzled pizzaiolo simply picked Ross up by his collar and threw him out the front door.
“I’m calling a cab, not because I give one tin shit what happens to you, but because I don’t want you driving drunk and killing someone. You show your face here again, I take it off. We clear?” he said.
I don’t know if Ross replied. The blood roaring in my ears was too loud. After a moment, I realized it wasn’t just my blood pounding. I was growling.
Sanchez came back in, calm as ice, and shut the door quietly behind him. “Cal, are you alright? I’d’ve got out here sooner, but I was—never mind. I shoulda got out here sooner, dough be damned.”
I swallowed and nodded. “I’m fine.”
Sanchez narrowed his eyes. “You aren’t, but I’m short a driver now. I’m sorry, chica. I hate to do this, but you’re the only driver I got left tonight. You got this?”
I took a deep, shuddering breath and composed myself. “Yeah, I got this.”
Sanchez nodded curtly and slipped back into the kitchen. He emerged a few minutes later with a hot bag and handed it to me.
I frowned. “She didn’t order cinnamon sticks this time,” I said.
“An extra,” he replied with a smile. “The way to a girl’s heart is through her stomach.”
Lilu snorted. “Not just a girl’s heart. Didn’t Uncle Ray propose to you over a pan of lasagna?”
Sanchez laughed and shrugged. “Sí, but everyone proposes to me after eating my lasagna. Ray was the first one worthy of the honor.”
I sighed. “Sanchez, this isn’t going to work.”
He shrugged. “Won’t know until you try,” he said. “Chica, I don’t know who broke you, and I don’t care. Sooner or later, you gotta pick up those pieces and turn it into something worth fighting for. You can’t just drift through life like…a…”
“Like a ghost?” I prompted wryly. I tossed the shattered remains of my glasses in the trash.
Sanchez threw up his hands. “Just deliver the damn pizza.”
I fled with the bag and didn’t look back.
* * *
I half expected to see Ross leaning against my rust-bucket of a car, but the rat was nowhere to be found. Clearly, he’d taken Sanchez’s warning to heart and vanished. Probably for the best. I would have smashed the pizza over his head. Terrible waste of a perfectly good pizza.
I looked up at the night sky, moonlight trickling through the dead claws of the October trees, and sighed. Everything looked different without my tinted lenses. Clearer. Sharper. I missed how my glasses turned the world into a study in sepia. My breath puffed across my muzzle before ghosting into the darkness.
I grimaced and laid the hot bag on the passenger seat before I buckled in. That hot bag was the only thing that had ever used the passenger seat.
I was so tired of being alone.
“I’m gonna do it,” I said to the empty car. “I’m going to ask for her number.”
But what about your—
I bared my teeth.
He won’t be a problem, I vowed, finger pads slipping on the key in the ignition. I repeated that line to myself all the way to Deanne’s lab.
Once again, I stood before Deanne’s office door. But this time, I was armed with new courage and a box of cinnamon sticks. I took a deep breath, tapped the buzzer, and squared my shoulders. Even my wayward tail behaved, flicking only once or twice while I waited patiently.
Deanne answered the door a minute later. I could hear claws scrabbling with the lock on the other side, and then she was in front of me, eyes wide and whiskers spread.
She didn’t look as perfect this time. Her fur was dusty along her nose, and her lab coat had greenish spatter on it. Instead of coconut, she smelled like ozone.
“Oh. Oh my goodness, I—I’m glad it’s you. I wanted to say—I wanted to apologize for my unkind words last time. It was wrong of me and…um.” She squinted at me. “You aren’t wearing your usual glasses.”
I shrugged. “They broke.”
Deanne looked at me a moment longer, and I knew from her expression that she’d just noticed my eyes didn’t match. I braced myself for the inevitable and waited. Here it comes, the exclamation about my eyes being different as if I didn’t already know, asking if I could really see ghosts. The sudden reluctance to meet my gaze, lest I steal their souls and keep them in jars or something.
But she didn’t say any of it. She met my gaze without fear and smiled. “You have lovely eyes,” she said.
I blinked, nonplussed. “Uh, thanks?” Real articulate, Cal.
She cleared her throat and looked at the two boxes I pulled out of the hot bag. “I didn’t order cinnamon sticks.”
“No, but you do from time to time. It sounded like you were under a lot of stress so, uhh. Here,” I said, handing the two boxes to her. God, I’m such an idiot. Sanchez even gave me a perfect setup, and I can’t do it.
Deanne looked at the boxes like she didn’t know what to do with them. “I…thank you. Hang on, I have something for you as well.” She juggled the boxes for a moment and plucked something from the back pocket of her pants. A slip of paper.
A slip of paper with a series of numbers on it.
“Would you like to get coffee or something some time? I have tomorrow off, if that would work for you too.”
I took the slip of paper from her hand and stared at it, utterly and completely dumbstruck. “I…yes. Yes! I have tomorrow off, too.” I didn’t, but Sanchez would give it to me if I asked. When I asked. I tore off a corner of the slip of paper and scrawled my own number on it, my paw shaking slightly.
What are you thinking? You’re going to get her killed!
No, I thought, not this time. This time, it’ll be different.
* * *
When I returned to Fantasma Pizzeria, Deanne’s number in hand, Sanchez cheered and gestured to Lilu. Lilu rolled her eyes and sent a paper airplane into the kitchen. A paper airplane that looked a lot like a five dollar bill. Sanchez snatched it mid-air.
“Wait, you took bets on me? God, I work with a bunch of assholes,” I said.
“About time you got your head out your ass,” Lilu said. “So, where you gonna take your date?”
“Coffee,” I said bluntly. “It’s just coffee. Not a date.”
“Coffee can be a date,” Sanchez hollered from the kitchen.
“It’s not a date! She might not even be interested in me like that. She might just want someone to talk to about…things. On a related note, Sanchez, I need tomorrow off,” I said. “I know you don’t have another driver, but—”
Sanchez’s throaty laugh echoed from the kitchen.
“I got a nephew, though. He needs the cash and he just got his license. You got your night off, chica. Make the most of it!”
* * *
The next morning, I was a complete and total spaz and turned my tiny studio apartment into a disaster zone. I groomed my fur until it lay soft and sleek, then messed it up again because it just didn’t look right. Every single article of clothing I owned was inspected, scrutinized, and discarded. Graphic tees, too nerdy. Plain tee shirts, too boring. Blue jeans, too casual. Cargo pants, too…no. Slacks were too formal, I didn’t own a single pair of khakis, and I was definitely not showing up in one of my two skirts. An ex of mine had a thing for naughty schoolgirl roleplay and left them when we broke up. They were way too short for a first date. Hell, they were probably too short to wear in public. Would she like to see me in a skirt, though? I mean, I hate them, but for her, I’d wear one on a date—
It’s not a date! It’s just coffee. Everyone does coffee. Friends do coffee all the time.
I took a break and grabbed the snow globe off my desk. It was a cheap prop I’d bought ages ago at a yard sale, something you’d set out for Halloween. Unless you’re weird, like me, and consider Halloween decorations a kind of permanent décor. With a flick of my wrist, I sent the black glitter inside swirling. “What do you think, Felix?” I asked the little cat in the globe. “Date, or coffee with a friend?” The cat didn’t respond. He never did. Just stood on his little grave mound, mouth open in a hiss and back arched. I sighed, set it down on my desk again, and went back to the closet.
As I rummaged deeper, I heard a thump come from behind me, on my desk. I paused. There it was again, followed by a crash. I jumped back from my closet and skidded to a halt beside my bed.
Sitting in the middle of the floor were the shattered remains of the snow globe. The black cat stared up at me forlornly from the floor, tail and paws broken from the grave mound it once stood upon. Black glitter and fluid oozed across the floor and began to soak into the ragged rug next to my night stand.
“How the hell?” I murmured. Damn it, that had been my favorite snow globe. I’d deliberately set it far back on my desk so it wouldn’t get knocked off and broken. How had it ended up over here?
The fur along my spine stood on end. There was no way that snow globe could have simply fallen off my desk. No mundane way. I lived alone in a tiny little studio, so there were no roommates to pull pranks on me. I’d never seen a mouse able to throw a snow globe many times its own weight, so it couldn’t be that.
I shivered, running my paws across my upper arms, then froze.
No, it’s been quiet for weeks. It can’t be that!
I whimpered and turned very slowly toward the mirror across from my bed. Panicked breath frosted the tips of my whiskers.
My name, written in blocky red letters, on the inside of the glass.
“Go away,” I said, my voice cracking in terror. “You aren’t welcome here. You’re dead. You can’t hurt me anymore!”
Sinful. Disgraceful. No kit of mine.
I shrieked and reached for something, anything to throw at the mirror. My paw landed on something cool and heavy. I gripped and threw, only belatedly realizing what I’d grabbed.
A snow globe. The one that was supposed to be in pieces on the floor. Only it wasn’t. It never was.
The snow globe hit the mirror and shattered. The words smeared together like wet ink until they vanished below the edge of the mirror. All that remained were the broken pieces of the snow globe. The mirror was unscathed.
“Gaslighting me, even in death,” I croaked. “I must have really pissed you off this time. Good.” I bared my fangs at the mirror. “If you’re angry, I must be doing something right.”
When the mirror remained quiescent, I knew my father’s ghost had run out of juice for the day. I cleaned up the mess, tossed the glass shards into the trash, and finished getting ready for my date.
Blue jeans, blue tank top with a Wonder Woman logo, and black Converse Chucks. The finishing touch was my backup pair of amber-tinted sunglasses with silver rims.
I looked at the mirror one last time. It rattled slightly. With a hiss, I fled my apartment.
* * *
Coffee was at a Rain Deer. There’s one on every street corner these days, and I have yet to find a better place to get a sugary drink that in no way resembles real coffee. It’s also considered a “safe” place for people like me. Non-human, non-straight, non-conforming, non-whatever. Thankfully, I’d come early enough that most of the tables were still unclaimed. A pair of corvine-forms occupied one table, talking in low voices. One had dyed the feathers along the center of her head bright blue. She looked at me, nodded, and went back to her conversation.
I ordered a blended concoction with coffee, caramel, mocha, and coconut before wandering to the end of the counter to wait. I was early; Deanne was nowhere to be seen. The barista (a lupine-form) finished my drink with a flourish of whipped cream and slid it towards me. I thanked him and found a table by a window.
What if she doesn’t come? What if she stands you up?
Well, then Sanchez can find someone else to deliver pizzas to her address. I’ll pick up a six pack of hard cider on the way back to my apartment, and by the time I finish it off, I’ll be over it. Probably.
And so, I waited.
I finished my drink.
I ordered another one.
I waited some more.
I was halfway through the second one when Deanne arrived, looking flustered. For a moment, I didn’t recognize her without her lab coat, but her laugh when the barista flirted with her gave her away. Deanne dug her wallet out of a shoulder bag covered in Doctor Who, Supernatural, and Ghostbusters pins, paid, and stepped to the end of the counter to await her drink. She peeked into her bag, rummaging around, and suddenly looked in my direction.
She looked at me blankly for a moment before her expression split into a relieved grin.
“Punctual, I like that,” she said, setting her bag down.
“I deliver pizzas,” I replied. “It’s a hazard of the trade.”
“Oh, right, sorry, I…” Her fur sleeked, suddenly making her look much smaller. Something in her bag vibrated loudly, and she swore.
“Stupid thing won’t…stop…got it! Sorry, notification from the lab on one of my experiments. I’ll just turn this thing off.” The buzzing sound abruptly cut off.
I smiled. “It’s fine.”
“I’ll…I’ll be right back. I’ll be less awkward after coffee, I swear,” she said, and retreated back to the counter for her coffee.
She returned a few minutes later with a very large, very dark iced drink.
“Did I hear that right? Are there six shots of espresso in there?” I asked.
Deanne nodded. “It’s basically a cardiac arrest in a cup. I’m a hopeless addict. So many late night experiments.” She settled down into the chair across from me, her bag across her lap.
I gestured to the buttons on the bag. “I take it you’re a fan?”
“Of which one?” she said with a laugh. “I stream episodes occasionally while I’m in the lab. So much of my work is the ‘hurry up and wait’ variety. I’m loving the new regeneration of the Doctor.”
I grinned. “Me too,” I replied. “The previous one was kind of annoying.”
“Oh my goodness, you thought so too? Everyone else seemed so enamored with him. I thought he was such an ass.”
We spent an hour just talking about geeky stuff. Not just favorite shows but books, comics, and movies. We nerded out over a mutual love of the new Star Wars, debated if Toothless could beat Smaug in a fight, and if Wonder Woman and Conan would be friends or rivals. Before I knew it, it was well after lunchtime.
“Oh crap, I need to head back to the lab. I can’t believe we spent the whole morning here!” Deanne said.
“We should do it again sometime,” I blurted.
“Any time,” Deanne said. “Please. You have no idea. No one at work even knows who Drizzt is. They think I’m discharging static when I say his name.”
* * *
Weeks passed, but I barely noticed. Funny how that happens when you’re in love. We went to movies, tried out every sushi restaurant within easy driving distance, and spent one memorable weekend at a sci-fi/comic convention, nerding out in all the best ways.
I prodded Deanne now and again about what she did in her lab, why she had an entire bookcase of paranormal reference books on her shelves, and while Deanne didn’t admit outright what she did, she eventually stopped denying it.
“Just don’t go telling everyone I’m some kind of ghost buster,” Deanne said to me. “Bad enough that paranormal phenomenon get derided as unscientific. I’ll lose what little funding I have if there’s so much as a whiff of pseudoscience to what I do.”
Every time I came home after a date with her, things got worse. I’d walk in to find every cabinet door wide open, contents stacked in unwieldy pillars to the ceiling. Or my mirror smeared with black ichor. My stereo would randomly turn on at full blast with deranged yowling. It was as if the longer my relationship with Deanne went, the stronger and angrier the spectre of my father became.
Soulless. Spiritless. Hollow, sinful little stray, my mirror scrawled at me. The blocky letters faded away after a moment, but the after-image of them was etched in my mind.
I whimpered. What would happened if—when—I moved in with Deanne? Would this ghost follow me?
You have to tell her.
No, I don’t. It’ll go away. It has to. Sooner or later, my father’s damned ghost will realize his unfinished business is never getting finished, and he’ll move on.
Denial, thy name is Cal.
By Christmas, I had one harrowing haunting event a day, occasionally two, whether I went out with Deanne or not. I started finding excuses to not go back to my apartment, taking late night shifts or camping out in an internet café. Anything to get me away from that place. I was tempted to spend the night at Deanne’s place, but I knew I’d never get any sleep. I’d be too terrified of what I’d wake up to.
“Cal! Order up!”
I startled. “Yes! Right! I heard you!”
“That’s the third time I said it. You sure you’re alright? You look like crap,” Lilu said.
“I’m fine,” I grunted. I shoved the pizzas in my hot bag.
“She’s not hurting you, is she?” Sanchez asked, leaning over the counter. His usually bronze colored arms were coated in flour all the way to his elbows. Even his eyebrows, furrowed with concern, were dusted with white powder. It took much of the bite out of his threat when he looked like he’d just face-planted into a snow bank.
“No, not—not Deanne. Never Deanne,” I said. “Just…having a lot of nightmares lately. Not sleeping well. Is that all for this round?”
Sanchez nodded and pushed back from the counter.
“Whatever’s got your tail in a twist, chica, I hope it passes. If talking about it will help, you know my door’s always open,” he said.
I swallowed, and almost broke. I almost spilled the whole story, about the doors slamming, the lights burning out constantly, the way milk would spoil without explanation or the strange skittering noises I’d hear in the walls at night.
Right. Crazy Cal and her crazy ghost stories. Like they’d ever believe me. I’d learned the hard way that the fastest way to lose friends was to tell them the truth about what I saw. What haunted me.
But Deanne. Deanne might. She was still shifty as hell when I’d ask her about what she did in that lab or whenever the topic of the paranormal came up, but maybe…maybe.
“Thanks, Sanchez,” I said, then grinned mischievously. “I would, but it’s a girl thing and—”
He threw his hands up. “Say no more! I get it! Talk to that lovely lady friend of yours, and best of luck!”
Lilu spat something in Spanish that I didn’t catch and finished in English. “My uncle, so brave until women things are involved!”
“It’s why I have a boyfriend, sobrina!” Sanchez chuckled. Lilu threw a pen at him, and he retreated to the safety of his kitchen.
I finished my shift and spent the drive home doing some hard thinking. I woke up to the mirror in my bathroom iced over and every light bulb burned out. I replaced the bulbs and ignored the mirror.
I’d tell her. And if she didn’t believe me, well, I tried. Better to know now, before things got any more serious.
* * *
I brooded into the evening and through the lovely dinner Deanne had made for us at her apartment. Finally, after half an hour of pushing my salmon listlessly around my plate, Deanne called me out on it.
“You keep scowling like that, and your face will stick that way.” She said it gently, her ears backed in concern.
I sighed. “Sorry, just…thinking about things. Rent. Bills. Family things.”
“You want to talk about it?” she asked. “It might help.”
You need to do this. She deserves to know. I took a deep breath, exhaled, and began to speak. I can do this. And if she throws me out or laughs, I can walk away knowing I tried.
“My father was…he wasn’t a good person,” I began. “He had his moments, and I’m sure he loved me before—before he realized I wasn’t like his other kittens. I was sick all the time and barely had the energy to walk, let alone play. But my parents did everything they could to keep me alive, because…because I had different colored eyes.”
“Heterochromia,” Deanne murmured, backing her ears briefly. “I’d heard that Angora purity cults try to ‘breed’ for it specifically. I’d…wondered, when I saw your eyes, but I didn’t want to pry.”
I nodded. “My father was no exception.” I took a deep, shuddering breath and continued, “God, it makes me sick to even remember it. My father wanted me to marry a nice Angora neko-form, just like him. Salt-white fur, pale green eyes. He wanted to keep our bloodline pure. Thing is, I have no interest in males, and even less in kittens. As soon as he made it clear what he thought my future should be, I tried to resist. I tried to convince him that I didn’t want that. He didn’t listen. The fights we had were epic, but I didn’t tell him why I wanted something else for a future until one day, I finally screamed at him I had no interest at all in toms like that and he—” I choked.
Soulless, spiritless, sinful little stray! No kit of mine. Get out! Get out! OUT! His voice howled in my mind, as loud as if he was right there, roaring it into my ear.
“He disowned you,” Deanne finished. She came around the breakfast bar and wrapped her arms around me, purring softly.
“He threw me out,” I said. “Wouldn’t even let me get any of my stuff. I don’t know if he thought I’d come crawling back or die in a gutter somewhere. I only knew I couldn’t go back. I just…drifted from doorstep to doorstep for weeks. Months. Didn’t go back to school, because there suddenly didn’t seem to be a point to it. Graduation came and went, and I barely even noticed it. Sanchez found me digging through his dumpster for pizza crusts just as the trees were starting to turn and…I don’t know. I don’t know why, but he let me inside, let me clean up in the janitor’s closet, and he asked questions. Not—not how I ended up like that, just if I could drive, if I knew the neighborhood. I didn’t have a car, but I knew most of the major streets by then. He offered to rent me a car, gave me a job as a delivery girl. I got free pizza and a steady paycheck; he got reliable help. I guess he’d had a bad run on hiring drivers.” I swiped at the damp under my eyes. I was not crying. I refused to. My father had stolen all the tears he ever would from me. “I didn’t even know he’d…that my father had passed away until I got a note on Facebook from a high school acquaintance. I looked up the obituaries and there he was. I didn’t even care. He’s dead, and all I felt when I saw that obit was relief. And then…and then, shit, I felt sick because I didn’t care, because I should care, because he was my father God damn it and…and…fuck.” I took a deep, shuddering breath and tried to compose myself. I pressed the back of my paw to my muzzle and squeezed my eyes shut, but it was too late. The tears came anyway. Ugly, wracking sobs that broke the dam I’d built to hold the pain back and left me shaking uncontrollably.
Deanne got up and hugged me. “How long ago was this?” she asked.
“Almost four years since he passed. Next Tuesday, it’ll be four years,” I said between sobs. “I shouldn’t be upset. I shouldn’t be so broken up about it. He was an asshole, and he treated me like crap because I wasn’t what he wanted, but he was my father and I can’t…I don’t…it’s all so confused. I tried to call my mom, but she never answered her phone.” I had tried, several times a day, from the Fantasma landline and later from the cheap cell phone I could afford. After a week of nothing but voicemail, I took the hint. I don’t know what I expected. It wasn’t like she went looking for me after my father had thrown me out.
Deanne made a soft hushing sound and hugged me tighter. “I know it’s only been a few months for us, but if you didn’t want to be alone, you could stay here. I don’t have a guest room, just a couch, and you’d have to share with The Holtz, but—”
“The what?” I blinked, rubbing the last of the tears from my eyes.
Deanna giggled. “My cat. Sorry, I know you haven’t met her yet. She’s so shy of new people. Let me see if I can coax her out from under my bed.” She scurried off to the bedroom.
“You never told me you had a cat!” I called after her.
Deanne laughed, sheepish. “A lot of people think it’s weird for a neko-form to have a cat for a pet. But she was a stray, and I couldn’t just leave her out in the cold. Don’t worry, she’s had all her shots.”
I sniffled and tried to groom my fur back into some semblance of order, but I knew it was a lost cause. Nothing short of a real shower was going to get the tear stains out of the white fur under my eyes.
I curled up on the couch, one pillow hugged to my chest, and I swore I’d only just closed my eyes when something soft and cool touched the tip of my nose. My whiskers twitched, and I opened one eye to find a very tiny black-and-white colored kitten in front of me, one paw raised and ready to bat my nose again.
I opened both eyes and looked at her. She looked back at me. Neither of us seemed to know what to do about the situation.
“Hello,” I said softly. “You must be The Holtz that Deanne was talking about.”
The kitten tilted her head to one side. Slowly, she closed both eyes and opened them again. I returned the gesture, which in Cat meant something like “I trust you, you can trust me.” She made a happy prurrow and curled up on my shoulder, purring softly.
“Sorry Cal, I can’t seem to find—oh, you found her.”
“I can’t move,” I said. “It’s the law. When a kitten falls asleep on you, you become the furniture until they wake up and move on.”
“Wow, she must really like you. I’ve never seen her stay in the same room as anyone but me, let alone fall asleep on them.”
“I can’t believe you have an actual cat,” I said. “And a jellicle cat at that. She’s practically a cousin to you.”
“It’s not illegal, just weird. It’s not even the weirdest thing about me,” Deanne protested. “Also, you never told me you read Elliot.”
I laughed, and the tiny kitten woke. She glared at me, then meowed plaintively at Deanne.
“Needy,” she said, picking her up and plopping down on the floor near me.
“So what is the weirdest thing about you?” I asked.
Deanne sighed. “It’s complicated. Besides, we were talking about you, not me. What do you want to do next Tuesday?”
“You need a distraction,” Deanne said. “Something to take your mind off it. Movie? How about a movie. What do you say? Is it a date?”
“Yes! Yes, I’d like that.”
“It’s a date, then. I’ll drop you off at your apartment on the way to work tomorrow morning.”
“What? No, I can’t…I’d be imposing, and I don’t want to—”
Deanne hushed me. “Don’t worry about it. I wouldn’t have offered if I thought it was an imposition. You’re safe and sound here.” The corner of her lip quirked wryly. “No ghosts will haunt you here, I promise.”
I relented, too tired to argue.
We said our goodnights, and while I was a little disappointed not to be sleeping in the same bed as Deanne, I was content to just be near her for the night. Even if she’d wanted to do more, I wasn’t up for it. Too much on my mind to enjoy it. Our first time—if we had a first time—shouldn’t come on the heels of me having an emotional breakdown.
God, and I still hadn’t told her everything. She needed to know about the broken dishes and the light bulbs that kept burning out, and…but it would have to wait. Again.
I curled up, Holtz nestled under one arm, and closed my eyes. I was safe. I was sound. Nothing could get me here.
When I heard a cabinet rattle in her kitchen in the middle of the night, I didn’t think anything of it. Deanne probably just got up for a midnight snack or something. It couldn’t be anything else. Couldn’t.
* * *
Before I knew it, Tuesday morning arrived. The hauntings got worse, but having something to look forward to made it easier to clean up after each episode. I even hummed to myself while restocking on light bulbs. I finished my shift at Fantasma and practically flew out of the parking lot toward my apartment to change. Sanchez and Lilu both cheered as I left, wishing me luck on my date.
I expected to walk in on an uncanny disaster, cabinets open and my mirror seeping black ichor. What I found was…nothing. My apartment looked exactly as I had left it, down to the last tin of Neko Chow tuna.
I didn’t question it. Maybe it’s finally winding down. Maybe his ghost finally realized his business can’t be finished and moved on. I changed into jeans and a tee shirt as fast as I could and was back out the door, zooming toward Deanne’s place.
I slid into the guest parking space and called her from my cell. “Dee? I’m here!”
“Be right down!” She made a kiss sound and hung up.
My heart fluttered and I grinned like an idiot. For the first time in what felt like my entire life, I was happy. I didn’t think I could feel any better. But then Deanne was walking down the path toward my car, and…wow.
She wore a black long coat and a TARDIS-blue scarf, with a matching hat covering her ears. Deanne slipped into the passenger side and huffed, rubbing her paws up and down her arms. “Damn it, it’s freezing. I don’t usually see my breath this much unless I’m in my lab.”
“With any luck, they’ll have the heat in the theater cranked up,” I said. “Wait, your lab is cold enough to see your breath?”
“Well, yes and no,” Deanne replied, flustered. “It’s not important.”
“You still haven’t told me exactly what you do in there.”
“Science. Lots of science. With physics!”
Deanne gave me a look, and I grinned. My grin faded a moment later as a thought occurred to me.
“Alright, so a question about ghosts,” I said. “Why do they haunt a place?”
“Or a person,” Deanne said. “They can haunt people.”
Deanne sighed. “Look, this is all hypothetical, okay? No one has ever proved there are ghosts or even souls. But say they’re real, and say people can leave pieces of themselves behind as they live, like fingerprints or hair, only spectral. Sometimes, that’s all a ghost is: a walking memory. And sometimes, it’s less like a fingerprint and more like a drop of blood smeared over the face of reality. Whatever it is that makes up a soul or a ghost, it lingers and it remembers much more than a moment in time. It remembers what it meant to be alive. Most of the time, they fade away in a few days, off to wherever souls go after their body stops supporting them. But sometimes they died so suddenly or violently that they don’t know they’re dead. Or they know that they’re dead, but can’t let go because they have unfinished business and can’t rest until it’s been settled.”
The steering wheel creaked under my paws. “So…hypothetically, what if a ghost’s unfinished business can’t be completed?”
“That’s when it gets complicated. They can’t move on, they can’t find peace. Most go mad. They become what is known as a poltergeist, and if they’re really strong, they become demons.”
“Wait, demons are real?”
“No! Of course not. There’s no such thing as demons. Or ghosts.” She didn’t sound certain.
“So these imaginary ghosts with unfinished business, what do you do about them when they go mad?”
Deanne grimaced. “Not going to give up, are you?”
She sighed. “You promise you won’t call me insane or deluded?”
I held up three fingers in a salute. “Scout’s honor.”
“You were a girl scout?”
“Not for very long,” I said. “Things are better now, but at the time, by troop wasn’t very open-minded. They could tolerate a Neko, but a Neko who wasn’t straight was too much for them.”
“Smooth-skins can be so close-minded,” Deanne muttered darkly.
“What, we’re ghouls now?”
“Nah, real ghouls don’t look like they’re rotting apart. That’s a zombie.”
I pulled up to a red light and I turned to look at Deanne. She winked.
“You’re yanking my tail,” I said.
“Would I do such a thing to my own girlfriend?” she said with mock indignity.
“Wait, I’m your girlfriend?”
“Cal, you’re slower than molasses in January. The light turned green.”
“What? Oh! Damn it.”
We made it to the theater with plenty of time to spare, but any time I tried to broach the topic of ghosts again, Deanne hushed me with a pointed look.
“Not here. I’ll tell you more when we’re alone, I promise.”
* * *
“That was way better than I thought it would be,” I said as we left the theater. I popped a few last pieces of popcorn into my mouth and tossed the empty bag in the trash by the exit.
“Eh. The book was better,” said Deanne.
I laughed. “Isn’t it always?”
I followed her out the back door and into the cold. Deanne took my hand, interlacing her fingers with mine and kissed me on the cheek. Snow fell gently all around us, dusting her black fur. I could barely see the fluffy flakes on my own pale pelt. Deanne licked a snowflake off my whisker, catching it on the tip of her tongue.
“Would you like to head back to my place? I have a bottle of spiced white wine we could share.”
“I’d like that,” I said.
The drive felt shorter, the walk up to her apartment shorter still. Deanne held my hand and I felt like the luckiest girl alive. She let go to get the wine and giggled.
She had a cute giggle.
Deanne returned and put a glass of wine in my hand. I frowned.
Deanne smiled and nodded. “It’s got mulling spices. It’s supposed to be served warm,” she said, sipping from her own glass.
I shrugged and took a sip. Sweet, spicy wine flowed across my tongue and down my throat, warming me to my core. Ohh, this is nice.
“I think she likes it, Mikey,” Deanne giggled.
“I didn’t take you for the wine type. Doesn’t this kill brain cells or something?”
Deanne shrugged. “Probably. But after what I put up with all day, I need a vice of some kind or I’ll go nuts.”
I swirled the wine in my glass and took another sip. “So, what do you do all day in that lab?”
“You’re going to think I’m insane,” Deanne said, taking another sip. A droplet clung to one whisker, and I had to resist the urge to catch it on my tongue like Deanne had been catching snowflakes.
“You’re dating me. I already think you’re insane,” I said.
Deanne sighed and sat down at the tiny table in her kitchen. “It’s…complicated. And it’s not considered sound science. We’re trying to change that, but until we have a real breakthrough, people are going to think we’re just wasting time and university resources.”
“Ghosts,” I ventured.
She nodded. “Ghosts. Physics has already postulated that there’s more than one dimension. What we haven’t figured out yet is why sometimes, those dimensions overlap and even mingle with our own. But they do, and something that should be dead reaches out across the gulf to touch our world. What we’re trying to figure out is how it happens, and why.”
“It sounds fascinating.”
“Honestly, it’s mostly boring. We haven’t had a real breakthrough catching or even recording a real ghost. Not reliably. Something about them just shorts out electrical equipment, and we can’t shield it without making it impossible to record. Old cameras with film sometimes work, but it’s too easy to fake those. They can’t be used as evidence.”
“You can fake a digital picture too,” I said.
Deanne sighed. “Yeah, that too. I have a few things I developed in the lab that are supposed to at least neutralize a ghost, but that hardly helps to catch one. Those I’ve been able to test. Of course, all the recordings just look like I’m shooting the darkness.”
I laughed and took another sip of my wine. It warmed me right to the core and made everything feel really good.
“Do you need a partner?” I asked. I slapped a paw over my muzzle the instant it came out of my mouth.
Deanne laughed and looked at me. “Trying to get out of the pizza delivery business?”
I shrugged, blushing. “It pays the bills, but it’s not what I’d call rewarding work.”
Deanne swirled her wine in her glass before answering. “What can you do?”
“I, uhh, well. I know my way around electronics. Hardware and software. I’m pretty good with Linux and I can pretty much pick up whatever you throw at me.”
Deanne made a sound of encouragement, so I kept going. “I’m a fast learner. I mean, I don’t know particle physics or anything, but I’m willing to learn. Always was, just…no money for college, you know? But the library is free, and there are a few online courses I took when I could afford it.”
She nodded. “Anything else?” she asked, twisting the stem of her wineglass between two fingers.
“I’m good with my paws.”
I wanted to slap myself the minute the words were out of my mouth.
Deanne looked at me, one eyebrow arched upward. “Oh?”
I swallowed and nodded. Deanne set her glass on the table and leaned forward, her whiskers close, so close. I couldn’t help it; I inhaled the scent of her. Wine and coconut and honey and popcorn from the theater and the sweet, spicy scent of just her.
Deanne nuzzled me gently, purring. She took off the tinted glasses I always wore and set them aside. “Just how good are you with your paws?”
“I can show you, if you’d like.” It came out strained, my throat clenching as it tried to match Deanne’s throaty purr.
“I would very much like that,” she said and took my paws. She led me to her bedroom and, before I could do more than take in the pink walls or the black comforter or the dresser with an oval mirror, she kissed me.
God, I wish I had the words for it. My blood was already singing with the wine, but the touch of her lips made the song crescendo. The tip of her tongue teased along my lip, and I let her in, my paws sliding up her back. No claws. No shredding her blouse, I told myself.
Deanne pulled back, and I dove after her. We tumbled to the bed, a tangle of arms, legs, and tails. Her hands slid under my shirt, I slipped down the back of her pants. I wanted to touch her, every inch of her, to make her yowl and writhe until—
Something rattled next to me, and a sliver of warning pierced my awareness. It sounded…familiar. Like a mirror rattling against the wall.
Can’t be. Not here. Can’t happen here. Probably just the headboard against the—oh God. Deanne’s tongue rasped across my bare belly, making me gasp and arch my back. She laughed, eyes gleaming in the half light from the door.
“You’re beautiful, Cal,” she murmured, kissing the curve of my hip.
“I’ve wanted to kiss you from the moment I saw you,” I said.
“Was it everything you dreamed?”
I chuckled. “I don’t know. Need to try it a few more times to be sure.”
Deanne grinned and kissed me again, pressing her body against mine. She was warm, so warm, her black fur a few shades darker than the comforter we were laying on. She’d kicked off her shoes (I hadn’t noticed when) and revealed lovely pink footpads on the bottoms of her feet.
It was adorable. I don’t know why, but I found it adorable.
Deanne kissed me again and slid my shirt up. She hesitated, her paw resting on my chest.
“Cal, are those scars?”
Desire died. I scrambled backward, one arm over my chest, ears backed. “It…it’s nothing. I, uh, I can leave my shirt on, if it bothers you.”
I started to shove my shirt back down, but Deanne stopped me. She peeled my shirt completely off, revealing four long, shiny scars across my chest.
“Claws,” she said.
“Yeah.” I looked away.
“Who?” Deanne demanded. Her voice was low, cold. Furious.
“My father,” I said. “From the day I left. They’ve mostly healed. They don’t even hurt anymore.”
Deanne hugged me, squeezing hard enough that my ribs creaked. “Ack! Air! Becoming an issue!”
“Sorry, sorry, I just…I can’t wrap my head around why someone would hurt you, hurt anyone like this.”
“My father was…complicated. He wasn’t always like this. Or so my mother insisted. But if there were good times, I can’t…I can’t remember them. I was never his favorite, and when we had that last fight, he tried…well. He didn’t succeed, and he can’t now.”
Deanne nodded and kissed me again. “I’m so sorry,” she said, nuzzling my neck.
“I’m not,” I said. “It brought me here. To you.”
And this time, I kissed her first. I kissed her with all my heart and soul, no longer caring if this would be my only time with her. It didn’t matter. She hadn’t shied away from my quirks, from my scars, from any part of me.
Just this once, just for this one night, it’ll be OK. Nothing will happen. I won’t let it. I want to be happy just this once.
Deanne returned the kiss, one finger tracing the line of a scar. “Will you stay the night?” she asked.
“If you’ll have me,” I breathed.
“For every moment that you’re awake,” she replied. Her lips locked to mine, and for one beautiful, glorious moment, I was perfectly, deliriously happy.
And then that moment passed.
A snarl and a hiss came from the open door. Illuminated in the doorway was Deanne’s cat, every inch of fur along her back raised and her ears flat against her skull. She hissed again, her gaze riveted to something on the far side of the room.
“Holtz? What wrong, sweetie?” Deanne said.
Holtz didn’t answer. She hissed again, tail lashing, and clawed at the air but refused to step foot into the room.
Something rattled against the wall, and my blood froze in my veins. I turned to look at the mirror.
Have you ever looked into a mirror and seen something move out of the corner of your eye, but it vanished too quickly for you to see what it was? Something flickered at the edge of my vision, warping the surface of the mirror like a ripple just under the surface of a still pond. I stood and approached the mirror. My eyes, my mismatched eyes my father thought were so precious, stared back at me wide and stricken. I watched as the color bled out of them, watched at they filmed over as if in death.
My reflection leered, twisted. Something raked across the back of the image. Like claws. Just like claws behind a sheet. The mirror bowed outward, silvery surface bubbling with corrosion.
“Deanne, run!” I screamed.
The mirror shattered. I threw my hands up to shield my face from the shards of glass, my eyes clenched tight. Deanne yowled. I didn’t see if she got away.
Something grabbed me, shook me like a kitten. “Useless. Soulless.”
My father’s voice rumbled like grinding gravel. I opened my eyes and looked my ghostly father in the face. Pale fur, white as salt, glowed in the dark. His eyes, once perfect sky blue, were filmed over with cataracts. His suit hung from his body in tatters, shredded and slick with rot.
“No daughter of mine will commit such blasphemy,” he growled. He closed one paw around my throat and began to squeeze.
I’m not yours! You disowned me! I tried to scream, but I couldn’t. His grip was too tight.
“Cal, close your eyes!” Deanne shouted.
I squinted my eyes shut, and suddenly felt a burst of heat along the side of my face. My father snarled and let go, dropping me to the floor. I lay, gasping for air and opened one eye.
Deanne stood in the doorway, a heavy contraption slung over one shoulder. She held what looked like a gun from a game of laser tag in her paws.
“What…the hell?” I coughed. “Is that…?” I couldn’t think of the word.
“Nope. It’s a spectral inverter. And it’ll scorch your retinas if you look at it!”
The ghost of my father roared and flew at Deanne, who roared right back and hit him again with a beam of red-black energy. My father dodged and laughed.
“Sinner. Blasphemer. How dare you lay hands on my little kitten!”
“Over-protective assbag from beyond the grave!” Deanne snapped back. “Go back to where you came from!” She shot at him again, and missed again. My father ducked under the beam and grabbed Deanne’s arm, twisting it viciously. Deanne shrieked and dropped the gun. With a cackle, my father lifted her and threw her against the wall. I heard something snap and screamed.
“Leave her alone!”
“Can’t leave, Caliban. Come back to God, kitten. Come back, give up this sinful life. Can’t let go until you do.” He turned to me, blind eyes blank but his expression paternal. “Need to see you settled, need to see you taken care of, as God intended.”
“I can’t,” I sobbed. “It doesn’t work that way. I can’t be what you want me to be. I never could. I never wanted a family, or even to be with a tom! I can never be happy like that! You have to let it go, let me go!”
“Never,” he growled. “Never. My daughter. Mine. Children obey. You’re mine, my own baby daughter, and you’ll do as I say!”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. I stood up straighter and looked him in his dead eyes. “I’m not your anything. You made that perfectly clear the last time I saw you alive.” I touched the place on my chest where the scars of his claws lingered. “It’s over. If that’s your unfinished business, I’m sorry. It’ll never be finished. I won’t destroy myself in a life I never wanted, just so you can be happy! It’s sick!”
My father went very still for a moment, his ghostly form wavering. “No. Can’t move on. Must save. Save you. From this. Only way. My child. My sinful, soulless daughter.” He tipped his head back and yowled, his pale fur growing even brighter. “Come to God, my daughter. It’s the only way to save your soul. I see it now!” And he came at me again.
I ducked, slipping under his grip like I always had as a child. Even in death, he underestimates how small I am. Scrawny, wiry Cal, the runt of the litter, always head and shoulders smaller than my siblings. I skidded across the floor and reached for Deanne.
She groaned and shifted. “My arm. I think he broke it. Blaster needs two hands, too much recoil.”
I picked up the blaster, aimed, and pulled the trigger. I blasted my father right in the chest, blowing a smoking hole in his ghostly body. He shrieked and drifted back from me.
“No more,” I said, and shot him again. “Never again.”
His form got more and more transparent. I shot him again, and he backed to the shattered remains of Deanne’s mirror.
“Caliban. My daughter. My child.” His voice was barely more than a whisper.
“No,” I said. “No real father hurts their child the way you hurt me.”
I pulled the trigger one final time, and my father’s ghost dissipated into fine mist. Then, he was gone.
I dropped the blaster to the floor and sank down after it, tears matting the fur under my eyes. Everything after that was a blur. I remember getting back up, and I remember that I drove Deanne to the ER as soon as I stopped shaking. As soon as her arm was set and in a cast, I remember numbly driving her back home. We sat in my car outside her apartment for a moment, neither of us quite sure what to say.
Finally, an arm wrapped around me, soft and warm and alive. “I’m so sorry, Cal,” Deanne said, finally breaking the silence.
“Yeah,” I sniffled. “So am I.”
“You know what this means, don’t you?” Deanne looked at me.
“That my next three paychecks are going to go towards cleaning up that mess?” I ventured.
“Well, yes,” she said, “but with my arm out of commission for at least a month, I can’t hold my blaster, let alone a beaker. I’ll need someone to help with my experiments, and Michael’s internship ended yesterday.”
I blinked. “W-what?”
Deanne grinned like the Cheshire Cat. “Would you like the job?”
* * *
“Cal, sweetheart, you gotta stop this. You’re gettin’ tears on the pies.”
“Sorry, Sanchez. Just…yeah. I’m OK,” I said. “I’m just really going to miss this place.”
Lilu looked at me from her place by the counter. “Uncle, give her a break.”
“Yeah, I know. But these pizzas won’t deliver themselves, and my nephew is useless. Can’t find his way out of a paper bag.” He shook his head. “Gonna miss you, Cal. You’re moving up in the world, but don’t forget us, alright?”
I took the pizzas and shoved them into my hot bag. “I’ll never get the smell of pizza out of the upholstery, Sanchez. And I never want to. Thanks, dude. For everything.” I hugged him, and Lila, and I strode out into the cold. The snow had mostly melted, but even though winter had mostly ended, there was just enough frost in the air to nip at you.
Large anchovy and mushroom. And two orders of cinnamon sticks.
I put my car into gear and drove, hands numb on the steering wheel. I parked, pulled the boxes from the bag, and took a few deep breaths. Then I opened the door and walked up to the building.
I didn’t even have a chance to press the buzzer before the door opened.
For a long moment, we both stood there, not saying anything. Deanne’s lab coat was impeccable again, and her eyes sparkled. Her broken arm was snug against her chest in a sling, and she’d already somehow managed to draw a crooked TARDIS on the cast in bright blue ink.
“I, uhh. Reporting for duty. And I brought lunch,” I said.
“Awesomesauce. Just in time, too. My experiment on ectoplasm’s electrical resistance needs attention. Let’s get you a lab coat and begin.”
I nodded. The ghost of happiness uncurled in my chest, and stretched.
* * *
Originally published in ROAR 9, 2018
About the Author
Searska GreyRaven has been writing ever since an eccentric sorceress was brave enough to teach them. They hava been previously published in several anthologies, most recently in ROAR 9, Dissident Signals, and CLAW 1, and have had stories nominated for both the Cóyotl and Leo Literary awards. They currently make their lair among the loons of Minnesota with their partner, along with a growing hoard of books guarded by a legion of plastic dinosaurs. They can be found on Twitter (SearskaGreyRvn) and post occasionally on SoFurry (Searska_GreyRaven).