I know I keep saying I’m not a short story writer, and I know I keep saying that a writer is not a piano player in a lounge, taking requests, but here it is anyway: another short story starring my best friend’s favorite characters.
Happy birthday, Marion!
When the Cat’s Away
jae_s1978 AT yahoo.de
As always, thank you so much to Pam for beta reading this story.
For Marion. Happy birthday! I promise there were no mice harmed in the production of this story. No wolves either — mainly because there are no wolves in the story.
And for my grandmother. I hope the mouse is gone for good.
This short story is a sequel to my novel ‘Second Nature.’
A JARRING SCREAM woke Griffin from her catnap.
Griffin leaped from the bed and bounded to the living room, where the scream had come from. A fierce hiss rose from her chest, and a burning sensation flared along her skin. Ready to protect her mate against any danger, she burst through the door.
The sight before her made her slide to a stop.
Squinting, she took in the scene in the living room.
There was no attacker and no visible danger. Jorie’s coconut-and-forest scent was the only human smell in the room. Griffin’s gaze slid over Jorie, taking in every inch of her.
Jorie sat in front of her laptop, her bare feet tucked beneath her and the sleeves of Griffin’s favorite shirt rolled up a few times to keep them from hanging over her fingers. Her gleaming black hair, disheveled as if she had run her hands through it, fell into a paler than usual face.
“Hey,” Griffin said. “Everything okay?”
Jorie’s scent said something had startled her, but the odor of fear was missing.
Wide eyes, now darkened to black, stared at her. Jorie shook her head and pointed to something on the floor.
Griffin looked down.
A handful of blue, green, red, and yellow M&M’s dotted the floor. A brown one peeked out from beneath the coffee table, and another one rested against Griffin’s foot. She bent and picked up Jorie’s favorite candy. Grinning, she leaned against the doorway. “Lost your marbles, darling?”
Jorie scowled, then pointed in the general direction of her desk. “It was the mouse.”
Ah, so that was the problem. Jorie had fiddled with the piece of technology and knocked over the candy jar she kept on her desk. Always willing to help her mate with her writing in whatever way she could, Griffin strode over and picked up the mouse. She gave it an experimental shake and clicked the two buttons. “Maybe it’s the batteries.”
“No.” Jorie took the mouse away from Griffin and set it back on her desk.
“No? You already put in new batteries?”
“There is a mouse behind my desk,” Jorie said, speaking slowly and pronouncing every syllable as if Griffin wouldn’t understand otherwise. She pointed again, and this time, Griffin realized she was pointing to something beneath the desk.
“A mouse? In my territory? I mean… in our house? Are you sure?” Surely none of the tiny beasts would dare enter the den of a liger-shifter.
“Oh, yeah. It tried to stick its wriggling nose into my candy jar, and when I screamed, it disappeared behind the desk. Now it’s hiding somewhere.” Black hair flew as Jorie shook her head. “I live with four cats! Four! And one of them is a 400-pound liger. Yet not one of you is able to catch one lousy mouse?”
When she put it like that, it sounded pretty pathetic.
Will, the red tomcat, lolloped into the room and sniffed the M&M’s. One of the other cats, Emmy, wandered in too. She circled Griffin once, leaving behind a trail of tri-colored hair on Griffin’s sweatpants, before she strode toward the kitchen.
“Don’t look at us like that,” Griffin said. She bent and picked up Will, who pushed his head beneath her chin and purred. His whiskers tickled and made Griffin smile. “Will here only’s got three paws, so that disqualifies him from mouse-hunting.”
“Oh, is that so?” Jorie got up and sashayed over. Her enchanting scent made Griffin’s heartbeat speed up as Jorie reached over to scratch Will behind one ear. “What’s your excuse, then? Last night, all your paws were in full working order.”
A purr rumbled up Griffin’s chest as she remembered. She grinned and playfully covered Will’s ears with her hand. “Not in front of the cats, darling.”
Jorie laughed and leaned forward to kiss Griffin.
With the cat purring between them, Griffin finally broke the kiss. “If you didn’t have an open jar of candy by your desk, maybe the mouse would have stayed outside, where it belongs.”
“But my brain needs the sugar while I’m writing,” Jorie said, arms folded.
Two years of living with a writer had taught Griffin not to argue against it. “Then maybe you should at least allow cats in the room while you write. That would prevent cheeky rodents from taking up residence in the living room.”
“Oh, no, that’s not negotiable. If I didn’t declare the living room a cat-free zone every now and then, I’d never get any writing done. You are much too distracting.”
Griffin proved her right by putting Will down, pulling Jorie into her arms, and stealing another kiss.
“So, what are you gonna do?” Jorie asked when they came up for air.
“Do?” Purring, Griffin nibbled on Jorie’s bottom lip. “I thought I could do more of this…” She gave the corner of Jorie’s mouth a teasing lick. “And this…” Another kiss nearly made her lose her train of thought.
After long seconds, Jorie, now clinging to Griffin, wrenched her lips away. “No… I… I mean… what are you gonna do about the mouse?”
Griffin thought about it, sorting through different hunting strategies in her mind. If the coward of a mouse was hiding behind the furniture, a frontal attack wouldn’t work, and an all-out hunt would be too hard on Jorie’s furniture. Clearly, the situation demanded a more subtle tactic.
“I’ll call my fathers and have them come over to help,” Griffin said.
Jorie slid her gaze up Griffin’s solid six-foot-two frame. “You need help to catch one tiny mouse?”
“Hey, you are the one who constantly encourages me to explore my Kasari side. I’m half lion. We hunt in prides. And my fathers have lived in Michigan much longer than me. They know the local prey.” Griffin gave her partner a confident grin. “One mouse. Three cat-shifters. Do the math. The house will be a rodent-free zone in no time.”
* * *
“Say that again,” Brian demanded.
Griffin’s lips tightened. She pressed the phone closer to her ear and peeked left and right, making sure that no one, not even the cats, could witness her embarrassing admission. Thankfully, Jorie had left for her monthly reading at the local library. “I’m in the doghouse with Jorie because there’s a mouse in the living room.”
Her father roared with laughter.
“Thank you very much for your overwhelming show of compassion,” Griffin grumbled. “And here I thought you’d want to help me.”
Brian’s laughter died down. “I do, Griffin. Really. Gus and I will be over in a minute. After all, we can’t have Jorie thinking our daughter isn’t a good mouser. Want us to bring the pride?”
“Um. No. That would be overkill.”
“All right. Gus, get over here! We need to go over to Jorie and Griffin’s! Their house is overrun with mice,” Brian’s voice boomed, loud enough for half the pride to hear him.
Groaning, Griffin laid her hand across her eyes and pressed the end button. “The house isn’t overrun. It’s just one tiny little mouse,” she mumbled. At least, that’s what she hoped. If the mouse had family, her reputation was toast.
She glared at the desk, where Jorie had last seen the mouse. “Prepare to be annihilated. Resistance is futile.”
* * *
Stealthily, the three cat-shifters prowled into the living room. In the middle of the room, they fanned out. Griffin patrolled the area in front of the tall bookshelf. Gus took up position next to the easy chair, while Brian advanced into enemy territory toward the small desk snuggled in one corner of the room.
Not moving a claw, they waited.
Griffin shifted her weight from one foot to the other, but she bravely stood by her post.
“I know cats are supposed to be patient,” Gus said beneath his breath, “but that’s because humans think we have nine lives, so we have time to spare. Even if we had, I wouldn’t want to waste one of them sitting around, waiting for a mouse to make an appearance.”
At the sound of Gus’s deep voice, something moved beneath the desk, half hidden in the jungle of power cords.
Brian lunged forward.
The mouse squeaked and scampered out from beneath the desk.
A shadow darted past Griffin, and she pounced.
But a cramped living room was not the place for three cat-shifters to go on a big-game hunt.
Gus, his feet tangled in Jorie’s comforter, crashed into her as he, too, tried to catch the mouse.
The corner of the coffee table scraped along her forehead. Pain shot through her, and she snarled as the tiny hairs on her arms lengthened. No! Jorie’s rules were as strict as her fathers had been when she was a teenager — no shifting indoors.
By the time Griffin had fought down the urge to shift, she saw a tiny tail disappear behind the bookcase. She sank against the coffee table and rubbed her forehead. “Oh, yeah. The house will be a rodent-free zone in no time.”
* * *
“It has to come out of there sometime, right?” Brian said as they took up position in front of the bookcase.
Griffin lifted a brow at him. “Yeah, but not before Jorie comes back from her author’s reading. Do you want to be the one to explain to Jorie why three cat-shifters failed to catch the mouse?”
Crawling closer on hands and knees, Gus peered behind the bookcase. “What if one of us reaches behind the bookcase? Even if we can’t get a hold of the mouse, it might chase the damn thing out from behind the bookcase.”
Griffin nodded. It sounded like a reasonable hunting strategy. But the thought of sliding her hand through all the dust and spiderwebs behind the bookcase made her wrinkle her nose in distaste.
She looked at Gus, who looked at Brian.
“Fine!” Brian growled. “I’ll do it. Get out of the way, you scaredy-cats.” He squeezed between the desk and the bookcase and, looking as if he were smelling five-day old fish, slid his hand along the wall.
Gus and Griffin took up position on the other end of the bookcase, ready to pounce should the mouse show its muzzle.
Griffin shifted her weight. The suspense made the skin of her arms tingle. “Do you have it?”
“Hold on,” Brian said, up to his shoulder behind the bookcase now. “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! I’ve got… something.” He pulled his prey out from behind the bookcase.
Griffin dashed over.
But the thing in Brian’s hand wasn’t a mouse. There, on Brian’s dust-covered palm, lay a blue M&M. With a snort, Brian threw the candy over his shoulder.
Emmy wandered in and immediately pounced on the bouncing candy, hunting it as it ricocheted all over the living room.
“If you want to hunt something, hunt that damn mouse!” Brian told the cat.
Naturally, Emmy didn’t listen. On her hunt for the M&M, she toppled over the research books Jorie had stacked next to the couch.
“I think it’s time for a new strategy,” Gus said. He plucked spiderwebs from his brother’s sleeve and handed Griffin a tissue for the bleeding scratch on her forehead. “Have you tried a mousetrap?”
“Mousetrap?” Brian looked at him as if Gus had suggested using a flame-thrower in Jorie’s living room.
Gus shrugged. “Why not? There’s more than one way to skin a… uh… mouse.”
Brian’s shirt tightened around his chest as he squared his shoulders. “We come from a long line of successful hunters. We don’t need those human contraptions. We can catch the damn mouse without a trap.”
A tiny nose with quivering whiskers stuck out from behind the bookcase, then quickly disappeared again as the mouse realized the siege was still ongoing.
“If my reputation as a hunter wasn’t at risk, I’d almost find it… cute,” Griffin said.
“Cute?” Brian roared.
“In a… um… totally preylike way, of course,” Griffin said. “So, what do we do now?”
* * *
When Griffin heard the sound of Jorie’s car come down the street, she stood holding Jorie’s prized lesbian fiction awards, protecting the fragile teardrop-shaped glass while Gus stacked one pile of books after the other on the coffee table and Brian tried to move the bookcase.
Her gaze darted around the living room. She took in the toppled-over stack of research books, the blood-dotted tissue on the coffee table, and the trampled remains of an M&M on the floor. The living room looked as if a war had been waged there.
A war that the mouse was still winning.
Just as Jorie’s key jangled at the front door, Brian finally managed to move the bookcase.
“Quick!” Gus called, his eyes glowing with hunting fever.
Griffin put the awards down on the couch and tensed her muscles, ready to pounce.
The door to the living room opened.
Griffin looked up and met Jorie’s wide-eyed gaze. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the mouse dash behind the desk.
With a careful zigzag course, Jorie climbed over the various obstacles. “What’s going on here?”
“Um, nothing much… How was the reading?” Griffin asked. She lifted her upper lip to let Jorie’s scent brush over the roof of her mouth. Her tense muscles relaxed as the scent didn’t bring the image of storm-whipped trees, always a sign of Jorie’s anger.
“It went fine, but I think that’s more than can be said about… this.” Jorie pointed at her rearranged living room. She brushed her lips over Griffin’s, then pulled back to take in the scratch on her forehead. “What happened to you?”
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
Brian rubbed nonchalantly at a speck of dust on his sleeve. “Hey, kitten. Did you know that it’s really dusty behind your bookcase?”
“I can see that.” Jorie walked over and plucked a bit of spiderweb from Brian’s beard, then leaned over to kiss his cheek.
“Yes, but we took care of it for you,” Gus said as he stretched his neck to receive his own kiss.
“Thank you so much, kind sir.” The corner of Jorie’s mouth twitched. “But what about the mouse? Did you catch it?”
Gus held up his hands. “One project after the other.” He sauntered to the door. “Do you, by any chance, have cheese in the fridge?”
* * *
Griffin got into the car. Fiddling with her seat belt, she glanced into the rearview mirror. “You can say it. Don’t hold back on my part. I know you think I’m a lousy mouser.”
The silence from the backseat sounded like a confirmation.
“I know what you’re thinking. A 400-pound liger should be able to hunt down a little mouse, right?”
No objection came from the backseat.
“But you should really keep in mind that my weight and height actually has me at a disadvantage. I can’t just squeeze behind the bookcase, and —”
The door on the passenger side opened, and Jorie climbed in. “Who are you talking to?”
“Um. No one.”
Jorie grinned and gently poked her. “You were talking to the mouse.”
“Please.” Griffin threw a glance over her shoulder to the backseat, where the mouse scurried around in the cage of the live catch trap. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone that big, bad Griffin Westmore has a heart as soft as a marshmallow.”
After turning in her seat, Jorie slid her fingers along Griffin’s forehead, careful not to touch the scratch. “Stop pouting already. I don’t care that you’re not the fiercest mouser in Michigan. I didn’t marry you for your hunting skills.”
“No?” Under the heat of Jorie’s gaze, Griffin began to purr. “Then why did you marry me?”
A grin spread over Jorie’s face. “Because I can’t cook to save my life, and you saved me from starvation or food poisoning, whatever would have come first.”
“You!” With a playful snarl, Griffin whirled around and dug her fingers into Jorie’s vulnerable sides, making her squeak along with the mouse in the backseat. When Jorie’s bursts of laughter finally died down, Griffin gentled her touch and kissed her.
If she couldn’t be Michigan’s best mouser, she’d at least be the best kisser.
Finally, Jorie moved back an inch and whispered against Griffin’s lips, “I married you because you have a heart as soft as a marshmallow.”
Purring, Griffin started the car to drive the mouse to its new home, far away from their house.
“But as much as I love you,” Jorie said as they left Osgrove behind, “if we ever have another mouse, I’ll call an exterminator.”