By E. K. Zoole

Many things get the hair on the back of my neck up, but nothing more so than the sound of scuffling along the baseboards, late at night. Sure, maybe it's just a scrap of paper skittering along in an errant puff of air-conditioned jet stream. Maybe it's the end of Arthur's belt hanging over the arm of the chair where he tossed his pants, lightly scraping the floor. Maybe.

Ssssscratch, scratch-scratch… Sssssscratch, scratch-scratch...

It pulled me out of a deep sleep, like rising up through dark water.

I was clinging to the edge of the bed; Enid had climbed in with us again, sprawled diagonally between my husband and me. I picked up her tiny, warm body and carried her back down the hall to her own room.

Ssssscratch, scratch-scratch… Sssssscratch, scratch-scratch...

Using my cell phone as a flashlight, I retrieved a fallen paperback that stood fluttering by the air vent.

"I wish we had a cat," I murmured as I crawled back into bed. "When you have a cat, you just say 'oh, it's just the cat' when you hear noises in the night."

The full moon was glowing through the sheers, casting eerie shadows on the piles of laundry on my dresser.

"Yeah," my husband yawned. "I wish we had a cat…"

I made my usual rounds the next morning – Enid to Deirdre J. Levy Academy of the Arts, Macsen to Westlake Middle, Arthur to the office (his car was in the shop again) then off to another job interview, the grocery store, and home again.

It was storming when I pulled the Honda up the driveway and around to the back of the house. I hit the brakes – hard. There was a cat; a big, fluffy, gray cat, with black and white stripes that tapered off into spots - like someone had taken a mackerel tabby and crossed it with a lynx. The cat was just sitting there, in meatloaf position, in the middle of the concrete, in the middle of the pouring rain.

He stood and stretched while I waited, my heart still pounding. He shook himself and trotted towards my kitchen door. I backed in under the overhang, hoping to unload the groceries without getting soaked. I pulled in really close – the rain was blowing hard – but the cat sat, calm and unmoving, on the doormat.

"Hello there," I said, opening the tailgate. "A little wet out today for your kind, isn't it?"

With a ten-pound bag of chicken leg quarters and a gallon of milk in one hand, I managed to unlock the back door with the other. The cat slipped quickly past me and disappeared down the hall towards the bedrooms.

"Hey - !" I set down my first load. Obviously, this was no feral creature – had to belong to one of my neighbors, I was sure. Great, I thought. I'll be finding little wet cat prints and a hairball or two in my clean laundry…

With the groceries unloaded and (sort of) put away, I set a stockpot of saltwater on the stove, rinsed the chicken quarters, and popped them in one by one. Chicken pie for dinner, stock and shredded jerk for the freezer – the smell will bring the cat out, if nothing else…

It was an hour or so later, the lidded pot simmering and my coffee cup full, that the cat re-appeared. He was stalking something, moving low and sure, staring intently - then flew across the room, batting and swiping for all he was worth at the little space where the hardwood floor had settled lower than the baseboard.

"Whatcha got there, Cat?" I asked. "Got a bug? A mouse, maybe? I wish you'd get rid of it, whatever it is."

He glanced back at me sharply, and nodded. I swear, he nodded, then went back to patrolling the baseboards, the thick fur above his shoulders fluffed despite the damp.

It rained the rest of the day, and for several days after that. Now and then I'd hold the door open for the cat, in case he wanted to head for home, but he seemed content to stay where he was for now.

"We'll see a sign up for him, once the rain stops," Arthur said, reaching down to scratch the cat behind the ears.

"Nope," said Enid, her crayons and coloring books spread out on the coffee table.

"He's not ours, Niddlebug," said my husband, lifting the cat up into his lap for a more thorough scratching. "We can't adopt him; he's too well-cared for to be a stray. Somebody misses him and wants him back, I'm sure."

"I'm adopted," she said, still coloring.

"Right," I said carefully. "But we don't have to give you back. You belong to us forever, Nids."

"But not everybody gets adopted forever," she insisted, looking up. "Sometimes it's just for a little while. What's the word when you adopt somebody like that - just for a little while?" she asked.

"Oh – you mean a foster," I said. "That's when a child from one family lives with another family temporarily. Sometimes it's just until the parents are better able to take care of a child," I explained. "Sometimes, a long time ago, people would foster the children of friends from far away to teach them new skills, and let the next generation get to know each other."

"Uh huh." Enid pushed her pink glasses up her nose and went back to her coloring.

"Hey, that's not a bad name," Arthur said. "We could call him Foster. What do you think, Elaine?" The cat rubbed once more against his hand then jumped down.

"I think if you give him a name, it's just going to be harder to let go, when the time comes."

I trailed my fingers along the tip of the cat's tail as he went by me. He scooted quickly out of the way. Even though the cat cuddled up on Enid's bed at night, and sought out Arthur's lap whenever possible, he didn't seem to care much for me. He sat down and began to groom himself, just out of my reach.

"I wish he liked me," I sighed. I didn't know I'd said it loud until the cat turned and looked back at me with a curious, assessing look.

"Wish in one hand and spit in the other, and see which one gets full first," said Macsen from behind an algebra book. "That's what you always tell me."

The timer went off on the microwave. I set out another half-empty casserole dish next to the steaming take-out tubs on the counter - leftover night.

"Okay, guys, come help yourselves. Enid, sweetie, let me get yours, these are hot."

As I dished out leftover chicken teriyaki and the last of the macaroni and cheese onto my daughter's plate, the cat rubbed against my ankles, purring.

I reached down to give the gray velvet a quick swipe. "So, you like me after all, huh? As long as I'm taking care of your other Humans, I'm okay?"

He nipped at my hand and trotted off to watch Arthur put a movie in the DVD player.

"He does like you, Mommy," Enid yawned as I tucked her in that night.

"Who does, sweetie?" I asked. It was late; her raisin eyes were already closed as I slipped her glasses off and put them in their case.

"He just doesn't want you to recognize him, that's all."

I smiled, hugging her tight, breathing in the special scent of her little body. No matter how down the day might leave me – the dreary repetition of my new stay-at-home life, the discouragement of being unable to find work in my field after finishing grad school – to hold Enid close and breathe her in always makes me feel like everything will work out okay in the end.

"I'm such a lucky, lucky Mommy," I whispered, kissing her golden-brown cheeks. "I love you, my Niddle-diddle-doo."

In the kitchen, Macsen rinsed the last of the dishes and put in the dishwasher. "Mom, can you take me to Gabe's tomorrow morning? We have to finish our mousetrap car by Wednesday."

"What time?" I asked, mentally reviewing my Saturday Schedule. "I have to get your Dad to the airport by eight. I can run you over there on the way back. Is that too early?"

"Whatever works," he said, drying his hands. "I'm easy. 'Night, Mom."

He gave me a hug and a kiss and went downstairs to his 'man cave'. I was still not used to his new voice, his new, 'cool' way of speaking – the summer between 7th and 8th grade, he'd grown taller than me and broader in the shoulders and chest. He was as proud of his wispy mustache as any girl would be of her first bra.

I put a blanket over my husband as he lay snoring on the couch in front of 'Return of The Jedi'. I put a blanket over him, knowing I'd have the bed to myself tonight. I didn't mind, really; Arthur is a big guy who tends to expand to fill the available space. Stretching out was a luxury for me.

I turned down the sound on the TV, turned off the family room light, poured myself a scotch, and headed down the hall to the office for a little Mommy time.

The cat was at my desk, sitting on my chair. Not in his usual meatloaf position, either – he was sitting on the chair, paws up on the desk, batting gently at my cordless mouse. He twitched as the hardwood floor creaked under me, and began frantically grooming at some imaginary spot.

"Surfing the net?" I asked. The screen had a Google search box open. "Just do me a favor," I said, setting down my glass, "stay off the porn sites, okay?"

The cat jumped down without a backward glance, twitching his tail. I heard a little creak as he pushed through the partially opened door of Enid's room.

I scanned my FaceBook feed, read a few blogs, replied to a handful of messages, and made tweaks to a couple of long-finished stories. Writing anything new was hard these days – it seemed that all I had interest in doing was editing what I'd already completed. I missed the creative rush I'd experienced all through grad school, the need to process everything new I'd learned by incorporating it into a story.

"I wish I could be a student forever," I sighed. Good luck, I thought. Unless I was hired by a school that would pay for me to continue on for my doctorate, there was little chance of that. And at my age? With less than fifteen years before retirement? Who am I kidding?

I'd checked email before dinner, but I looked once more – and had to laugh at myself. There, in my Quote Of The Day – 'As you cannot do what you wish, you should wish what you can do. – Terence, 195-159 BCE'.

"Great," I muttered. "I wish I could do what I can do." I finished my drink and put out the light.

As I passed Enid's door, I heard the sound of her voice. I peered in through the crack. The cat was snuggled up close, and she was whispering to him with her eyes closed. I couldn't understand what she said; it was just nonsense sounds. She'd done that when she was very small and we'd first brought her home from the orphanage in China. She'd talked in her sleep for months, but it never sounded like Cantonese.

The cat looked up, and tilted his head inquiringly.

"Just me," I whispered. "I heard you guys talking and wanted to make sure everything was okay. Night-night."

Did I just say that to the Cat? I closed the door, shaking my head. Well, I had just finished a scotch, and I have very little resistance to system depressants.

Go to bed, Elaine – you're schnockered...

Ssssscratch, scratch-scratch… Sssssscratch, scratch-scratch...

I came awake with a gasp, like rising up through dark water.

Ssssscratch, scratch-scratch… Sssssscratch, scratch-scratch...

"MmmmmmrrrrrrrrrraaaaooOWWWWW!" Thud – tap-tap-tap-thud-thud… "Mmmmmmmrrrrrrrrr… hssssssssssssss!" Thud.

I sat bolt upright, gasping, and turned on my lamp in time to see a long, fluffy, gray tail going out my door. My heart was pounding – I'd been dreaming, dreaming something horrible about being in the car with the kids but with someone else at the wheel, someone I didn't know, and the driver was becoming more and more reckless, coming closer and closer to the edge of the cliff above the dark water, and I knew – I knew – we were about to go over and I had to do something – something – something…

And then it was over. The dread, the terror, the desperate feeling of impending doom – gone. I began to cry, shaking, light-headed with relief.

"Excuse me…?"

Macsen stood at the door of my room, his hair tangled from sleep.

"It's okay, honey, I just had a bad dream," I hurried to reassure him, wiping tears from my face.

"No – no, I beg your pardon, but I'm not Macsen - I just borrowed him for a moment. May I come in, Elaine?"

Without waiting for an answer he did just that, sitting down at the foot of the bed.

"Mac?" I said, confused. "Are you okay?"

"Perfectly. He's fine, Elaine, I've traded bodies with him before, and he seemed to really enjoy being able to jump onto the counters and lick his own junk, so I thought I'd let him have another shot at it before I left. Please," he said, "rather than the tedium of a detailed explanation, let your mind fall open and accept what I have to say. I promise, it will all make sense eventually."

"It – it actually makes sense already," I said, surprised. "I think."

"Excellent. That was part of why I was avoiding you, my dear – I was afraid you would begin to remember the previous times we've met, and that might have proven awkward."

"You - you are Enid's – no – no, please, you haven't come to take her back – no!" my hand flew to my mouth.

"No, no, no – let me assure you – our fostering agreement is not in question." Enid's father put my son's hand gently on my arm. "We wish our daughter to have a full, happy life with you, in this form and in this place, and we fully intend to reciprocate the fostering with one of Macsen's descendants, when the time is right. However," he said, crossing his legs and turning one wrist in a manner totally not that of my son, "I do wish to briefly revisit our Interference and Contact Agreement, in view of an outbreak of hostilities with the – %^#$ ." A sound came from his mouth, but I couldn't make sense of.

"The efforts of this particular enemy," he continued, "will often manifest themselves in bad luck, or feelings of loss and discontent – a most insidious foe," he sighed, shaking his head. "So far, the attacks have been leveled mainly towards you, as our point of contact, but eventually the effects would spread to the rest of your family – including Small Pink Cloud Lit From Beneath By The Setting Sun Whose Shape Changes Just As You Think You Know What It Looks Like."


"Enid." He smiled. "I'd forgotten how much I like your short names – her mother, Unique Hexagonal Microscopic Ice Crystal, thought 'Snowflake' was very pretty."

"But, if I recall, you preferred 'Starchy Root Seared in Hot Oil, Cooled, And Seared Again' to 'Re-fried Fry'."

"Old-fashioned, true," he shrugged, "but it's a family name. Be that as it may, in our original agreement, we were only to appear in response to your expressed wish and that left me no way of telling you that a rather dangerous agent of our enemy was inhabiting the walls of this house in the form of a field mouse. It was fortuitous, indeed, that I had access to a cat when you wished for one."

He rose from the edge of the bed. "From now on, if there's any danger, I'll just send you an email – I hadn't realized what a simple system it was, really; very easy for me to tap into from home. I set up a Gmail account," he said, as if that explained everything. "Now, you won't remember any of this," he cautioned.

"As we agreed," I nodded. "It's just better."

"Indeed. Enid is enjoying it here very much, by the way. She absolutely adores you all."

"Oh, I'm so glad – we love her, too."

"I know." He took my hand and bowed over it in a courtly fashion. "Thank you again, Elaine. It was lovely to see you. If it's alright, Snowflake and I may drop in next spring as a pair of robins – you wished for them last year, but I hadn't any available at the time."

"Please – by all means," I said, "and thank you so much for dealing with the – the – "

"The %^#$ . Nasty, aren't they? Well, I'll stop in and say goodnight to Enid and give Macsen his outsides back. Oh – by any chance, would you care to keep the cat? He's in between jobs right now, and you do have a very comfortable home…"

"We'd be delighted. Good night."

"Goodnight, Elaine." Macsen's lanky form rose, bowing gracefully. "I wish you all the best."