Laurie stands in front of a door. It’s old but solid, as many old things are. Whatever paint once covered it has long since worn away, and the wood beneath is striped, and furred with splinters. It is her very first door, of her very first day, of her very first job.
Her ankles wobble over brand-new high heels, and her smart jacket is slightly itchy and entirely unsuited for the warm weather. She lifts one aching foot and then the other out of her stiff, uncompromising shoes. Her life stretches out before her, a long walk down an endless road hemmed in on either side by door after closed, splintery door.
Reaching out two pink-lacquered fingers and one pink-lacquered thumb, she delicately lifts up the knocker—brass, cat-shaped, with a tail curled in a circle. When Laurie raps the knocker three times against the base, the tail twitches underneath her fingers.
The sound carries inside the house like a summons. The cat lady does not like unannounced visitors, and who could blame her? She’s already removed her shoes for the day, and put her feet up on the ottoman, and coaxed one of her cats—an old one-eyed tom named Inky—to settle his heavy, furred body on top of her legs like a blanket.
She might have pretended not to hear the first two knocks, but three, as everyone knows, is a number one can’t ignore. Inky fixes his one remaining eye on her as if to say, “Three times. That means something.”
“Fine,” she says. “But I’m not putting my shoes back on. Once they come off, they stay off.”
The cat lady squints when she opens the door. Both the sunshine and the young woman are very, very bright.
“Good afternoon!” says Laurie, smiling broadly. “How are you today? I’m Laurie, and I’m here on behalf of the…”
“Don’t care,” the cat lady tells her. “Don’t want it.”
Laurie blinks. She’s memorized the script she must recite to each household, and once interrupted, the words pile up inside her throat. “You don’t want…what?”
“Whatever it is you’re selling.”
“But, I’m not selling anything.” Laurie waves a petition at the cat lady, and a brightly-colored adhesive tab flutters to the ground. “I work for a nonprofit. I just want your signature.”
The cat lady snorts. She’s already imagining the satisfying clink! the knocker will make when she slams the door. But the calico, Bob, chooses just that moment to squeeze her lithe body between the cat lady’s feet and dart down the path toward the road, a streak of orange and brown and white.
“Damn it! You let Bob out!” The cat lady watches Bob dart across the road, and huffs. “Inky,” she calls over her shoulder, “You’re in charge.”
A plaintive voice comes from inside the house: “Inky is always in charge.” The cat lady steps out onto the path and closes the door behind her without responding.
“You forgot your shoes,” says Laurie.
“Once the shoes come off, they stay off!”
Laurie watches the cat lady march across the street. Her training tells her that she should simply move to the next house on her list. Every moment spent here is a moment wasted, since the cat lady is most assuredly not going to sign her petition.
But. It’s her fault Bob escaped. Isn’t it?
She follows the cat lady across the street, to the park that lies beyond the neighborhood. What used to be a scruffy patch of woods is now a manicured lawn threaded with cork paths leading to swing sets and sandboxes and climbers demarcated by intended age group. By the time Laurie catches up, the cat lady has reached a gleaming metal-and-plastic play structure. Bob perches at the very top, her tail curled around her paws, looking regal as you please.
“Oh,” pants Laurie. “I guess you found her already.” She hates to admit it, but it’s a little bit of a letdown, how quickly Bob appeared, and with so little effort.
“Finding her is the easy part,” the cat lady says. “But never you mind. You’d best be on your way. Back to your harvesting of personal information.”
The cat lady begins to climb the ladder with her bare feet. She looks spry enough, but one missed rung and she’ll land flat on her back on the wood chips. Laurie can’t stand around waiting for that to happen; she’s not without a moral compass. Tossing both the petition and her shoes on the ground, she follows the cat lady up.
At the top, Bob watches both of them, saucer eyes unblinking, tail flicking with interest.
“Took you long enough,” says Bob.
“Well, none of us are as young as we used to be,” says the cat lady.
The fact that Bob can speak is strange, but now that Laurie is standing at the top of the playground structure, she begins to realize that there are far more unsettling things in the universe. The hole leading to nothing, for example, that’s right behind Bob.
It’s not really a hole. Laurie’s mind labels it as such because, when faced with something which defies all description, the mind will force it to fit somewhere. “Hole” is as close an analog as Laurie’s mind can come up with.
What it is, in fact, is a loosening. A thin place in the membrane between universes, where the fabric has worn like jeans over kneecaps, and the threads weaving everything together have begun to pull apart. Laurie could not possibly know this, but the cat lady does. Her house sits upon one of those thin places. It’s been her job, through each of her nine lives, to guard it—hers and the cats. A long time ago, when she was young and frisky and new, it was a dangerous place, with universes threatening to burst through at all hours. Not all universes have soft blankets and cups of tea and catnip and windowsills that warm in the sun. Some universes are downright nasty places, and the cat lady got herself into some tremendous scraps keeping this one safe. With the hindsight of eight full lives, she managed to darn the gaping seam, weaving the strings of the universe together and reinforcing it with cat hair and the odd whisker and her own plucked unruly strands for good measure. The patch, while not pretty, has held well for the past ten years, and the cat lady had been looking forward to enjoying the remainder of her last life doing crossword puzzles and eating through her stores of preserves.
But darn it all if Bob hasn’t gone and discovered another hole.
“Are you coming with us, then?” Bob asks Laurie.
“No,” answers the cat lady.
“I wasn’t asking you. She has a part to play, or she wouldn’t be here.” Bob stands and stretches two ways. “Come on, then,” she says, and leaps into the hole.
The cat lady turns to Laurie with a brilliant smile that reveals disconcertingly sharp incisors. “Time to piss or get off the pot.” Then she pinches her nose and jumps, following Bob into nothingness.
We have come, now, to the fork in the road, the moment of decision for our young petitioner. She has a job—her first job, remember, a job for which she created a resume and received letters of recommendation and answered practice interview questions with a career counselor who told Laurie that she suffered from an affliction called vocal fry and that no one would ever take her seriously if she didn’t learn how to speak properly. She ought to climb back down the ladder, put on her shoes, and take her petition to the next house on her list. She ought to speak in the way the career counselor taught her, with a crisp, clean tone that hurts her throat but it’s worth it to be taken seriously, to be treated as an adult, and to obtain the necessary signatures.
She’s always done what she ought to do. She’s never been on an adventure. She feels strangely curious. She feels, for the first time, brave. And the hole to nothingness beckons.
Laurie makes her choice. With one final glance back at her shoes and clipboard, she takes a deep breath, and jumps.
Back at the house, the cats twitch their ears. It would be impossible to say how many cats live in the house with the cat lady. Even she isn’t entirely sure. If you ask her, she’ll tell you that the house has exactly enough cats: no more, no less. A cat curled in every corner, on each cushion, and on each available lap. But the cat lady’s house is not always entirely the same size and shape. Like a cat, it sometimes stretches its hallways to its full length, and sometimes curls into such a tightly-wound ball that one cannot distinguish the kitchen from the bedroom. But the proportion of cats to surface area never seems to vary.
Right now, the house is alert, its foundation light and ready to spring. The cats inside, too, are restless. The kittens stalk to and fro; the older cats watch with practiced and deceptive stillness.
“I hope she comes back,” says Baby Sweet.
“We’re not talking about it,” says Inky.
“Not Bob. I don’t so much care about Bob. But the litter box will need emptying soon. Who’s going to take care of the litter box?”
“I said,” repeats Inky, “we’re not. Talking. About. It.”
Bridget, a Persian mix with a squashed face and quite a lot of pearl-gray hair, stands proudly over her most recent hairball. “Well, I’m due for a brushing. If she doesn’t come back soon, I’m going to get snarls.”
“We all have fur,” says Baby Sweet. “We all like to be brushed.”
“What’s all this?” says Marzipan. He and his sister Obo occupy the third and fourth stairs respectively, as is their habit. It is also Marzipan’s habit to speak for both himself and Obo, who prefers to wear a knowingly annoyed expression while remaining silent. “Bob’s not coming back? Says who? That’s not acceptable.”
“We’re not talking about Bob,” says Bridget. “Bob is beside the point.”
A springy yellow kitten named Captain Tiptoe bounds into the room, eyes and ears wide open. “Bob is not beside the point!”
“Oh, brother,” says Baby Sweet.
“Never leave a cat behind,” insists Captain Tiptoe, pouncing on an errant thread in his excitement. “Isn’t that what we always say?”
“It’s not what I say,” mumbles Baby Sweet.
“Look here!” Inky stands up, turns in three complete circles, and sits back down again. “I’m in charge. And I’m saying, none of this is our business. Our only job is to stay put, and keep out of trouble.”
Mary Lou, an ancient cat with gray-brown stripes and green eyes and the tiniest patch of tan on her belly, lifts her head. “There’s no such thing as staying out of trouble.”
The other cats blink at Mary Lou. They are not accustomed to hearing her speak. They are not, truth be told, accustomed to seeing her green eyes open and focused. She’s so old that she has her own designated spot on the chenille blanket the cat lady keeps folded up on the left-hand side of the sofa. None of the other cats will take it, even if Mary Lou is eating or visiting the litter box. They afford her that courtesy, because she is so old, nearly as old as the cat lady herself.
“I was here in the beginning,” she says, “when we had to fight to keep this house from splintering around us. Some of you don’t remember, but some of you…” She looks pointedly at Inky and Baby Sweet. “Some of you remember what it used to be like.”
For a moment, the house is filled with a silence that one only finds in a house full of cats.
“I don’t know,” says Bridget. “Maybe Inky is right. After all, I’ve just got my spot here nice and warm.”
“Oh, hush,” says Marzipan. Obo sneezes and looks even more annoyed than usual.
Captain Tiptoe pounces on a carpet fiber. “While we’re sitting here lying about, Bob is risking her life for us. How would any of you feel if Bob lost this fight and we could have helped?”
“I don’t so much care about Bob,” says Baby Sweet, but this time he sounds unsure.
Captain Tiptoe stands to his full height, which is not very high at all, but one can see by the size of his paws that he’ll be a fine cat one day, if he lives that long. “I’m not old enough to remember the way things were before. But something feels…not quite right.”
“It’s true,” says Marzipan. “I can feel it, too. Can’t the rest of you?”
Their glassy eyes flick uneasily toward one another. All of them can sense the wrongness in the air, like a crease in a blanket or a piece of kibble in a bowl of water.
“It doesn’t matter,” insists Inky. “We can’t get out, so what can we do?”
Just then, the house shivers, as if shaking off a long day’s nap. The floors stretch and reach, and the living room sprouts an alcove like an extended paw. In the alcove is a window.
An open window.
“That settles it,” says Marzipan. “Inky, are you in?”
Inky fixes his one eye on the window. A breeze flutters the curtains, bringing with it the smell of grass and mourning doves and chipmunks…and something else, something foreign that taints the day. He lets out a deep, tuna-scented sigh.
“You might be right,” he tells Mary Lou. “I hate it when you’re right.”
Mary Lou gives him a slow blink. “Call me if anything goes wrong.”
One by one, the cats hop up onto the window seat in the alcove and slip outside: Inky, Bridget, Marzipan, Obo, Captain Tiptoe, Taco the slinky brown kitten, Jabba the Maine Coon. Even Baby Sweet, for whom the jump is slightly too high for the comfort of his joints. Once the last cat has made it through, the window shuts, the alcove collapses, and the house curls up to wait with Mary Lou.
Laurie lands on a hard, cold, slippery surface. The cat lady and Bob both crouch next to her, silent and coiled with energy. Bob’s tail bristles and the fur on her back scruffs up.
“What is this place?” whispers Laurie. All she can see are angles and lines and slick shiny edges.
“It’s the vet,” growls Bob.
“It’s not the vet,” says the cat lady.
“Well, it’s like the vet.”
Laurie scrambles to her feet. She’s never been to the vet, but she knows what this place reminds her of: The financial aid office. The career counselor. The sparse cubicle she was given at work. Miles of blank walls without fun posters or personal photographs, desks without clutter, bowls filled with the worst kinds of candy.
“I’m not entirely sure what we’re doing here,” she says.
“Something living in this place,” says Bob, “wants to escape its boundaries. It’s poking at the barrier that separates our universe. It made a hole.” She flicks her tail at the cat lady. “She needs to patch it.”
“Is it something, you know, dangerous?”
“This one’s going to be a big help, isn’t she?” says the cat lady.
Bob twitches her ears. “Give her a chance. Come on.”
They begin to walk. Even though Laurie isn’t entirely sure she ought to be here, it feels delicious to be barefoot, and she’s pleasantly surprised by how lightly she walks, how soundlessly.
“You should never give out your real name,” says the cat lady. “Just so you know.”
“Why not?” Laurie asks in surprise. Her name is part of the script given to her by the nonprofit. As important as it is to memorize the speech, it’s even more important to personalize it. That, Laurie was taught, is how you connect with people.
“Names have power. Hasn’t anyone ever told you that?”
“But then how do we…you know, converse? If we’re going to be battling evil together, and so forth.”
“Use an alias,” says the cat. “Do you think my real name is Bob?”
“Do you have an alias?” Laurie asks the cat lady.
“She goes by Eleanor,” Bob says. “And if you don’t already have an alias picked out, I think you should use Amy. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone your real name. Eleanor won’t, either.”
“We’ll see,” says the cat lady.
They continue walking. The endless blankness of their surroundings has Laurie thoroughly spooked, and the further they walk, the twitchier she gets.
Bob stops and lifts her back into a painful-looking arch, all of her fur standing on end. Then, Laurie hears it: the sound of a motor revving up, like a jet engine, or a vacuum.
“Here it comes,” mutters Eleanor.
“Here what comes?” Laurie scans the surfaces and angles and corners of this place but can see nothing living. Nothing living at all.
And then she understands.
The place itself is the entity. They are inside the beast, and it’s lifeless, blank, utterly without blemish or scent or character.
“Time to work!” yells Eleanor. She pulls a large silver tapestry needle out of her back jeans pocket and tugs at the air until she teases out a shimmery strand, which she threads through the eye. “A little help?”
“Help—how?” Laurie tries to find more strands in the air, but her fingers swipe at nothing.
Bob, meanwhile, hisses and spits. She dashes to and fro and sheds her hair everywhere, but despite all of Bob’s scratching, the ground remains smooth and glassy. Cat hair sizzles and flares out in a whiff of ozone before it can settle on the floor. Even Laurie’s sweaty, smudgy fingerprints disappear instantly.
The whooshing vacuum sound increases, pulling apart the threads Eleanor had just gathered and sucking them away. Just ahead, the ground drops off in a sharp-edged chasm, and Laurie feels the suction tugging her toward the edge, as if she were nothing but an errant crumb on the floor.This entity wants to erase her. To make the entire world sterile, hard, uncomfortable.
Then, from the distance, a caterwaul.
A thunder of paws.
Flashes of white and black and orange and gray pierce through the metal and the mist: the other cats, who dash into the fray and join Bob in a whirlwind of howling and teeth and dander.
“Yes!” says Eleanor. She tugs at another thread. “Well done, Inky!”
“It wasn’t entirely Inky’s decision,” calls Baby Sweet as he zooms by as fast as his aging hips allow.
The vacuum sound hitches and whines, struggling to keep up with all the freshly-shed fur in the air. Obo and Marzipan both wheeze rhythmically, working up twin hairballs, and Bridget, not to be outdone, coughs up a blob of fur and mucous massive enough that the weakened suction can’t budge it at all. “Clean that up!” she challenges.
Then, the cats freeze and sniff. A sheet of fog rolls through the air, bringing with it the sickly, medicinal scent of industrial disinfectant. Inky sneezes repeatedly, and Laurie gags.
“I told you!” Bob wails. “It’s the vet!”
The air chills dramatically. The cats skid over a layer of frost and ice, howling at the indignity of it all. Eleanor grits her teeth. Her hands are blue and raw, and even with all of the cat hair flying around, she can’t gather enough thread to mend this seam. Any moment now, this entity will swallow them up, and then nothing will stand in its way. Eleanor never thought her life—her last life—would end this way. She never thought she’d fail so utterly.
“Mary Lou!” yells Inky. “Mary Lou!”
Cats, unlike dogs, are not rule-bound creatures. They do not sit, or stay, or heel. They will not be kept off the kitchen counter with a verbal command. They most certainly do not beg; what a cat wants, a cat takes.
One might suppose, then, that cats enjoy chaos, but that is not at all true. Cats enjoy order; they simply do not tolerate when someone else’s order is imposed upon them. And they very much like a cozy spot to come home to after all is said and done.
Houses are much the same. Like cats, they get cranky when someone attempts to tell them what a house ought to be. Instead, they collect dust bunnies in corners and smudges on windows and odd mystery splotches on countertops. And, like cats, the older a house gets, the crankier it becomes: Shingles shed at inopportune times. The sump pump clogs, flooding the basement. Ancient electrical wires fray and spark deep within the walls.
But houses, too, prize coziness above all. Eleanor’s house is very old, and wants nothing more than to lick clean its baseboards and settle in for a long nap. But it can sense danger, and it knows that Eleanor, even with the help of Laurie and all the cats, will not be able to stop this danger from bursting forth and ruining all of the safe, soft, warm spots in the world.
Mary Lou blinks. “We’re going in, then, are we?”
The house purrs in assent, a faint rumble echoing up from the basement.
“Alright. One more go.”
Together, the house and Mary Lou stand and stretch. The house situates itself carefully over the dormant thin place Eleanor had so painstakingly darned all those years and lives ago.
Then, the house extends its claws.
The smell of cleaning spray is giving Laurie a headache. She breathes through her mouth, but aerosolized particles coat her tongue. She’s frightened. This place makes her feel small, and insignificant, and like she doesn’t have anything to offer the world.
But she does.
She does, and she can.
So, even though she’s terrified, she does her job.
“Excuse me!” she shouts, standing up and tugging her skirt and jacket into place. “Excuse me! Do you have a permit for expansion?”
The disinfectant mist pauses, as if for an intake of breath—only for a moment, but Laurie is ready. She knows from her training that a pause is all you get; a pause is practically an invitation.
“Because if you don’t,” she says, “you need to get a petition and acquire at least 100 signatures.”
The entity growls and, right in front of Laurie, the floor sprouts a dozen shards of metal like a row of pointed teeth.
“It doesn’t matter how many of you there are,” Laurie yells, “if you didn’t sign on the dotted line, it doesn’t count!”
The entity falters, momentarily confused by Laurie’s unorthodox attack, and the cats seize the opportunity. Inky yowls, and the cats spring in an explosion of fur. Together, they claw the ice into a rough maze of hatch marks. They rub their mouths and cheeks against the metal, infusing it with their scent. Captain Tiptoe, in a gesture of defiance only possible by the very young, lets loose a pungent stream of urine. The ammonia smell cuts through the sanitizing scent, and Laurie’s head clears.
“Once you have your signatures,” Laurie screams over the din, “you have to request to be put on the zoning board’s schedule!”
Eleanor has not stopped punching the air with her needle. This has always been her job. She’s not a fighter, but she trusts the cats. While they rage and pounce, Eleanor finds a loose thread and finally catches it with her needle. “Just a little bit longer!” she calls.
The house comes crashing down in front of them, its shingles standing on end, its door an open mouth full of needle-like teeth. It growls from deep within its basement, and on every surface ice cracks, then shatters. The house’s claws dig into shiny metal and gouge out long scratches.
Out of the front door, Mary Lou bounds into the mist like a cat in her prime, a bundle of lean muscle and shiny fur and razor-sharp claws. The rest of the cats let out a cacophony of triumphant screeches that, in their dissonance, make the entity tremble.
Laurie edges aside to avoid the ammonia-sharp puddle pooling to her left, and digs her manicured nails into the ground, scratching out an A, an M and a Y. The letters are jagged and untidy, and they mar the entity’s smooth surface. She has made a mark: Amy was here. Her polish chips, the flakes of pink mixing with the fur and dander settling all around, and Laurie feels like a warrior. Take that to the admissions officer who told her she wasn’t cut out for grad school. Take that to the career counselor who winced every time Laurie’s voice rose at the end of a sentence. Take that to uncomfortable shoes and wearing blazers on hot days and unreasonable dress codes of all kinds! Her favorite t-shirt is a threadbare tie-dye with stains down the front and if she ever gets out of here she’s going to wear it proudly. She lifts up her head and a growl tears from her throat, a growl that’s chock-full of vocal fry, and it feels fantastic.
“Done!” calls Eleanor. “Come on, Amy!”
Amy, Laurie thinks, proudly. That’s me.
She joins the cats in a dash to the house. As soon as they’re all inside, Eleanor slams shut the door, and the house springs back up through the hole, back to its street in their own perfectly-imperfect universe. The cats pile on top of the hole to keep it blocked while Eleanor quickly pulls the seam closed, knotting and breaking the thread.
Not long after the hole is darned, Eleanor puts the kettle on. Her back aches, and her elbow twinges. She’s not sure she’s got another adventure left in her, but that’s not for her to decide, and as long as she’s still hanging on to her ninth life, she’s going to enjoy a cup of tea.
“So,” says Amy.
Eleanor looks up. “Are you still here?”
Amy pulls at her sleeves. “Well, I—is everything…is there anything else we need to do?”
Eleanor raises her eyebrows and prepares to tell Amy that there is no “we,” none at all, when a shadow catches her eye outside the kitchen window.
It’s a gray-brown striped cat limping across the street, into the park.
“Oh,” she says. The sound escapes like an unintended exhalation, like a gut punch.
Amy follows her gaze. “Isn’t that Mary Lou?”
“It’s her time,” Eleanor says faintly. “Cats always know. And they prefer to die alone.”
The two of them watch Mary Lou disappear into the trees. The kettle whistles. The moment passes.
Eleanor takes one mug down from the cupboard. One, not two. It feels heavier than it ought to. “There’s no reason for you to hang around. The hole is closed.”
“Oh. Okay.” Amy flushes. “I should go back to the park anyway, and find my shoes.”
Baby Sweet, that traitor, is weaving his body around Amy’s legs, purring. Amy bends down to give the cat a scritch just exactly where he likes it, right above his tail. Eleanor frowns; Baby Sweet doesn’t like anyone.
Amy straightens and heads for the door.
“Wait.” Eleanor keeps her eyes on her tea when she speaks. “Bob sees something in you. She’s rarely wrong.”
Amy waits for more, but this is as much as Eleanor is willing to give.
“Come back and visit,” says Baby Sweet.
“Yes!” yells Captain Tiptoe. “And when you do, bring treats!”
The front door closes, leaving the house quieter than it has been in quite some time. Eleanor stares out the window, even though Mary Lou has long since disappeared. “Safe passage,” she whispers.
Then she sighs, and picks up her mug and calls for Inky. She’s ready, at long last, to put her feet back up.
Amy doesn’t retrieve her shoes from the park. She walks home barefoot, keeping to the grass when she can, and avoiding the most obvious rocks and shards of glass when she can’t. It won’t occur to her until later that she’s started thinking of herself as “Amy.” Already, she’s learned to hoard her name like a cat hoards a toy—to squish it between couch cushions or push it as far beneath the stove as one’s paw will allow.
Eventually she makes it back to her apartment, a small studio in a large Victorian house that’s been divided into rentals. She climbs the front steps, takes out her keys, and then stops. Two cats, curled like apostrophes, sleep on the rough wooden planks of the shared porch. When they hear Amy approach, they rouse and stretch and mew.
“What are you doing here?” She bends and pets them in turn. They arch their backs into her hand and rub themselves against her, covering her skirt with cat hair. Amy doesn’t know if the landlord allows pets, but she has a feeling it doesn’t matter. The cats were drawn here, and already they scratch at the door, asking to be let inside. They’re not talking to Amy, not yet. But maybe they will, eventually, if she listens hard enough.
She unlocks the door and leads the cats to her apartment, where they each claim a corner of the futon. Amy sits between them, and smiles, and feels her life—all of her lives—stretching out in front of her.
Jennifer Hudak is a speculative fiction writer fueled mostly by tea. Her stories appear in venues such as PodCastle, Flash Fiction Online, and Apparition Lit. Originally from Boston, she now lives with her family in Upstate New York where she teaches yoga, knits pocket-sized animals, and misses the ocean.