Here, Kitty, Kitty

Billie had been missing when they locked up for the night. When a cat’s cry awakened Emma at first light she smiled, pleased that Billie was all right, and pulled the covers tighter under her chin. A second cry, more pitiful than the first, made her sit up and swing her legs out into the cold morning air. She walked to the window and looked out, expecting to see Billie looking up at her from the deck below.

The deck was empty. Puzzled, Emma pushed her hair out of her face. The cry came again, and she looked at the garden, the lawn, the shore. Where…?

Another mew, and Emma located the sound across the water. She must be on Ten-acre Island.

“Oh, Billie, how did you get out there?” Emma muttered. It wasn’t as though she could stow away in somebody’s boat: nobody went out there anymore.

Wondering if she could get her husband to go after the cat, she looked at the bed. Max slept soundly, his high-bridged nose in profile against the pillow, his mouth slightly open, revealing the one crooked incisor that kept his teeth from being perfect. She pulled jeans and a sweatshirt over her summer pajamas, slipped her feet into boating sneakers, and went downstairs.

The grass was silvery with dew, and Emma felt the bottoms of her jeans grow wet against her ankles as she walked to the shore. Before getting into the rowboat, she paused to look for Billie’s position on the island’s shore. She could just make out the small figure of her cat sitting on a log that had one end on the island, the other in the water. Billie saw her. She stood, tail aloft, and gave a more hopeful cry.

“I’ll be right there, Billie,” Emma said, untying the rowboat from their small dock.

The water was perfectly still, and wisps of mist rose from it toward a lavender-grey sky tinged with pink in the east. The island, too, was still, and night lay on the cedar trees. She didn’t want to go to the island, and could feel apprehension constricting her chest at the thought of stepping onto it.

Billie cried again, moved back and forth on the log the way cats do when they’re looking to jump.

Emma got into the boat and rowed toward her cat. The oarlocks creaked as she pulled the oars against the water. Ripples spread behind her passage, then faded to stillness. Billie’s cry was getting closer, and she hoped the cat would be cooperative for once and not make her get on shore.

She pulled up near the log and shifted the oars into the boat. Billie greeted her with a rough and noisy purring, and Emma was able to lift her from the log without much trouble as the boat glided by. The purring stopped momentarily while Billie was suspended over the water, but resumed as soon as she was safely in the boat.

“How did you get out here?” Emma asked, stroking Billie’s head and back. The cat wasn’t wet at all. If she’d swum out, it had been hours ago.

Billie rubbed against Emma enthusiastically, apparently wanting to be petted everywhere at once. Suddenly she stopped and looked over Emma’s shoulder. Billie crouched, arching her back and growling. Emma turned quickly to see the problem.

The forward momentum of the boat was carrying them along the margin of the island, toward a low outcropping of rock where rusted metal rings had once moored boats. No boats were there now, but a huge deer stood on the rock.

It was the largest deer Emma had ever seen. It was drinking from the lake, but raised its head to watch them pass. The boat drifted quite close to the rock, and Emma saw water dripping from its bearded chin. A round chin, the muzzle making a perfect circle. Its coat was shaggy brown, and thick, a coat for cold weather. Its hooves, inches from her, were so large she didn’t think she could encompass them with both hands. Its chest was broader than a horse’s, and when she looked up, she saw it regarding her with a mildly curious gaze.

Its antlers were not those of a deer or a moose, but they were big. The rowboat was directly under it, and the antlers extended beyond both ends of the boat. The sun came up then, behind it, a dazzle of light through the knobby, branching black shadow of its antlers.

It turned and moved off. The rowboat drifted farther out into the lake as Emma watched the deer lower its bulk into the water and swim toward the forest preserve on the far shore, only its antlered head raised high above the surface.

“Hey, hey, watch where you’re going!” Charles Flewellen’s voice cut through the silence.

Emma jumped, turned, scrambled for her oars and got control of her boat just in time to keep it from colliding with Charles’ boat. He sat as he had every fine morning since his retirement: fishing creel in hand, filament stretching into the water. He wore a plaid wool shirt, worn through at the elbows, and a shapeless hat with fishing lures stuck in the band. Below the hat he was all elbows and angles, and his knees poked above the sides of the rowboat.

“What are you doing out here so early?” Charles asked.

“Did you see that deer?”

“What deer?”

She looked toward the far shore. It was pulling itself out of the water. “That one.”

He glanced over. “They do swim.”

“It’s huge,” Emma said. “Look how big it is next to those trees.”

“Saplings,” Charles said. “I told you, you lose perspective out here.”

The deer disappeared into the forest.

“No,” Emma said. “I mean, it’s huge. Its antlers…” She did some quick mental arithmetic involving the length of the rowboat. “Its antlers are at least nine feet wide,” she said quietly, trying to take it in herself.

Charles laughed.

“I mean it. I didn’t know they got that big.”

“They don’t.”

“But … didn’t you see it? It was standing on the rock on the island, drinking water.”

Charles chuckled. “Do you take your cat fishing every morning?”

Emma looked at Billie, who was seated in the rear of the boat and peering intently into the water. Her tail twitched. A school of little brown fish darted toward the front of the boat, and Billie’s gaze followed them.

“This wasn’t exactly a deer,” Emma said. “It was bigger boned, more like a moose. Only it was bigger than a moose, too.”

“On the island, you said?” Charles’ rod bent, and he reeled in his line. A trout made a glittering, wriggling arc into his boat.

“Yes.”

“Everything has to do with that island.”

“What do you mean?”

Charles detached the fish from his line and dropped it into his basket. “You’re letting your emotions about the island color your perceptions of it, Emma. It’s just an ordinary island except for what happened to your father out there.”

“You mean, you think I’m making this up?”

“No, not exactly. But I think your imagination’s making you exaggerate a tad.”

Emma thumped the oars back into the locks and gave the right oar a strong, sudden pull. The boat turned. Startled, Billie dug her claws into the seat. “I am not exaggerating,” Emma said. “Why don’t we go look for hoofprints?”

“Thought you said it was on the rock. Won’t be any hoofprints on the rock.”

Emma thought there would be prints in the interior, but she didn’t want to go into the interior. Saying anything about that would only make things worse. “You’re just so blinded by your own preconceptions, you can’t see what’s in front of you.” She pulled on the oars, but jerkily, and they popped out of the locks. She fumbled them back into place to the background noise of Charles’ laughter.

“Wait, wait, don’t go away mad,” Charles said. “Here: take a trout back for breakfast.” He wrapped a fish in newspaper and handed it to her.

“Thank you,” Emma said through clenched teeth. Charles laughed again. Emma decided she was tired of his laugh.

Billie instantly sniffed the paper, poking her nose between the folds.

“That’s not your breakfast,” Emma said, holding it up and wondering how she was going to row home and keep Billie away from the trout.

“Here,” Charles said. “Here’s some bait fish for you.” He threw a couple into the boat and Billie pounced on them.

Emma set the trout on the seat beside her and rowed toward home.

“Friends?” Charles called after her.

“Of course,” she shouted back. “But I still saw what I saw.”

The boat glided past the island, and the loudest sounds were Billie’s chewing and the oars slapping the water. Sloppy rowing style, Emma knew, and tried to calm down. Birds trilled on shore, calling to each other.

How had Billie gotten onto the island? She hated water. Emma had seen her up to her elbows hunting frogs and fish, but if she fell in that always put an end to it. She just wanted out.

Maybe she’d fallen in and grabbed onto a log or something and it drifted out to the island. But what current would it drift on?

Emma supposed she’d never know. It was just one of those mysterious situations cats get into.

The mist was rising more quickly now, and soon would all be gone. The sun was bright on the water, the sky without clouds. Today was going to be a scorcher, she could tell.

She looked across the open expanse of lake, past the island to the far shore with its thick growth of trees down to the waterline. Did the forest hide herds of giant deer? Or was Charles right? Was her imagination compounding them out of grief and fear?

She thought of the deer on the rock.

She had seen what she had seen.

*   *   *

Billie was finishing the last bites of fish when the boat bumped against the shore. The motion jarred her balance, and she dropped the fins. They were too sharp, anyway. She jumped onto the seat and licked the fish smell off her whiskers.

Her person left the boat and walked toward home. After a few steps, she turned toward Billie and crooned a signal to come.

Billie followed across the wet grass. With each step, she shook her paw to get the annoying water off. The woman went ahead.

A feathered thing fluttered onto the grass and Billie paused. The bird inspected the ground, pecked. Billie crouched, and the muscles of her back twitched, then the tip of her tail. She eased forward. The bird hopped. Belly to the ground, ears flat, Billie inched toward it.

The air suddenly went out of Billie’s lungs as a hand lifted her from the ground. A sound of feathers was in her ears as the bird flew off. Billie found herself in her person’s arms. She regretted missing the bird, but was glad to be off the wet grass. She purred and stretched herself over the woman’s shoulder.

As they continued toward the house, Billie sniffed the air. There was a trace of the deer from otherside, but all the remaining smells were of home. The deep red light was gone from the island. The doorway her person’s father had made to otherside was closed.

Emma carried Billie up the stairs to the deck. When they reached the top step, the glass door to the kitchen slid open. There was Max, checking the morning and probably looking for her. He wore his Mummenschanz T-shirt and jeans, and his hair was wet from the shower. A drop of water fell from his hair, already fighting to regain its wiry curl, and slid along his jawline. He held a steaming mug in his hand.

“I made coffee,” he said, sounding relieved to see her. He smiled, and the trace of anxiety left his eyes.

Billie jumped onto the deck and went inside.

“Great. I’ve got a trout for breakfast.” Emma kissed him lightly as she went past him into the kitchen. She wrapped the fish in plastic and put it in the refrigerator.

“You got up to go fishing?”

“I got up to get Billie.” Emma poured herself coffee. Max had turned on the kitchen TV and it chattered in the background. “The fish is from Charles. I had to row out…” The sound of Billie scratching in her litterbox came from the downstairs bathroom. “I can’t believe it: she got me up to bring her home so she could use the litterpan. That cat is overcivilized.”

Emma brought her coffee out to the deck and sat at the table with Max, the glass door open between them and the kitchen. Inside, overcolored images fluttered on the TV screen: a weather report. They were predicting heat and sunshine.

“I hate deadlines,” Max said, then sipped his coffee.

Emma looked across the lake and marveled at how different it was from the grey and misty place of shadows she’d visited a short time ago. Now it was all crayon colors: blue sky, green trees, blue water. Charles rowed by, red shirt, yellow boat. He nodded to them, his hands busy with the oars, and they waved back.

“I saw a deer on the island,” Emma said.

“I suppose it swam out,” said Max. He set his coffee down and, improvising a picture frame with his hands, scanned the lake. Suddenly he dropped this game and turned to Emma. “Wait a minute. Are you telling me you actually went onto that island?”
“No. I rowed past and rescued the cat. And there was a huge deer standing on that rock at the end and drinking from the lake.”
Max put his hand over hers. “I don’t like waking up alone.”
“Max, you’re not listening. This deer was so big, it had feet like hubcaps. The span of its antlers was at least three yards.”
Max spluttered, trying not to choke on the mouthful of coffee he was swallowing.
“Its antlers were wider than our rowboat is long, and the boat is nine feet,” Emma said, pulling her hand away from him.
“I guess we’re lucky it didn’t drink the whole lake.” Chuckling, Max shook his head. “Emma, deer don’t come that big.”
“Fine. Go ahead and laugh. You’re as bad as Charles.”
“Charles saw it, too?”
“No, and he didn’t believe me either.”
“But he was out there?”
“I know what I saw,” Emma said. She stood, threw what remained of her coffee out in a brown arc that fell into the grass, and went inside.
Max followed, still chuckling. “Now calm down, calm down,” he said. He tried to put his arms around her, but she shrugged him off. She took the fish out of the refrigerator. “Here, you can clean it,” she said, pushing it toward him.
Max sighed. “It’s that island. You see anything to do with it as strange.”
Emma cut up an onion, whacking the blade of the cleaver up and down on the cutting board in rapid little strokes that she knew would dull the edge, but she didn’t care. “It is strange.”
“But it doesn’t have things on it that don’t exist.”
Emma slammed the frying pan onto the stove with enough force that Max winced. “How would you like it if you saw something and nobody would believe you?”
“Happens all the time. It’s called imagination. Only I’ve learned to put it in cartoons and get paid for it. Hey, how come that cat isn’t pestering me for this fish?”
Emma was frying the onions, but she glanced over her shoulder. Billie lay stretched out in her basket, her paws twitching, her eyes displaying REM movements beneath the closed lids. “Charles gave her a couple of bait fish.”
“Look at her. She’s exhausted. You’d think she worked for a living.”
“She was out all night. And you’re just trying to change the subject.”
“Absolutely. I hate a fight before breakfast.” He put his arms around her, and this time Emma didn’t push him away.
“Billie saw the deer, too. She growled at it,” Emma said.
*   *   *
After breakfast, Max went downstairs to his drawing board. Emma showered and dressed, then cleaned up the kitchen. When she vacuumed, Billie awakened and went downstairs stiff-legged with annoyance.
In the late morning, Emma carried a book and the binoculars onto the deck. She sat, the book unread beside her, and studied the island.
A thick growth of cedar crowded the island’s shoreline, except for the end to her right, where bare rock glared in the August sun. Seen through the binoculars, the individual trees leaped into focus. The branches bent toward the water and touched their reflections. Emma followed the waterline to the rocky outcropping and the rusted rings attached to the fissured granite. She wanted something unusual to appear, but it all looked stubbornly normal. She picked up her book.
Emma had read a few chapters when a splash caught her attention. She grabbed the binoculars.
A large animal was swimming away from the island, disturbing the rock’s reflected image. From what she could see of its body beneath the surface, she estimated its length at five or six feet. Its head rose sleek and wet above the water, and it was doing a standard mammalian dog paddle. It swam in a line that would carry it between the island’s rocky outcropping and the matching rock on the mainland, where Rutledge’s house stood.
The animal had an unfamiliar look: a big head, small ears spaced wide apart, dark fur. Maybe it just seemed strange because it was wet. Maybe it was a bear, or even a dog with a big head. But she didn’t think so. It looked more like a beaver, but it was too big. Soon it would round the point, and she wouldn’t be able to see it.
Emma heard Max’s footsteps behind her in the kitchen. When he came up without being called, it meant work wasn’t going well. “Max, come here, quick. There’s something swimming in the lake.”
He joined her on the deck. “What’s for lunch?” he said. “I’m starved.”
“There’s a giant beaver or something swimming in the lake,” Emma said. She pointed, but it had disappeared behind the shoreline trees.
Max looked at the empty lake. “Are giant animals going to be a running joke all summer?” he asked.
Max’s hair was standing up untidily, a sure sign he’d been running his hands through it. “Frustrating morning?” Emma asked.
In answer, he stretched his arms up over his head and yodeled.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” she said.
“What’s the point of living in the country if you can’t make a little noise? I’m going to give up cartooning. I’ll drive a school bus instead.”
Emma, who had heard this before, leaned across the deck rail and tried to see farther up the lake. She caught a whiff of something that distracted her from the animal. “I smell smoke,” she said. She raised her binoculars and scanned the trees across the lake in the forest preserve for signs of fire. The line of green abutting the blue sky was nowhere broken by smoke, or made wavery by heat. The same was true of the island, where the dark green cedars stood sentinel, their drooping branches guarding the view to the interior.
“It was a chilly morning,” Max said. “Maybe somebody’s using their woodstove.”
“Not Rutledge. It would be a point of pride with him not to have a fire in August,” Emma said, but she looked toward his house anyway. Rutledge would build a good fire, one with very little smoke, so she checked for the wiggily signature of heat above his chimney. There was none.
“That wouldn’t stop your sister or her husband,” said Max.
“There’s no smoke coming from their chimney,” Emma said, pointing toward Dana and Bootsy Moore’s house. “And I do smell smoke.”
Max put his arms around her and sniffed the air. “I smell perfume,” he said, nuzzling her neck. “We’re not going to have another worrying day, are we? Strange animals, and smoke, all at once.”
She pushed him away. “I’m serious. Don’t you smell it?”
He frowned at the air. “Maybe somebody’s burning trash.”
She shook her head. “It’s a wood fire.”
“My wife, the expert on woodsmoke.”
“Bootsy and I came up here every summer with dad when we were kids. When you live in the woods, you learn to pay attention to what woodsmoke smells like. You’d better.”
An expression of enlightenment spread over Max’s face. “I know. They’re burning off paint down at the boatwright’s.”
Emma considered this, sniffed. “Could be.”
“It is. You may know wood, but I know all about paint. Let’s eat.”
He drew her to him and led her inside. The kitchen was cool and dim, with a lemony-herbal scent from the furniture polish she’d been using that morning. Emma reached into the refrigerator for lettuce and mayonnaise. “I don’t know what it was out there,” she said, rattling through the gadget drawer for the can opener. “But it was big, maybe six feet long, and furry.”
*   *   *
Billie was napping lightly on the windowsill when her ears caught the sound of the refrigerator opening. She raised her head, eyes open but third eyelid still partly in place, and listened. Clatter in the can opener drawer brought her fully alert. She sprang from the windowsill and ran into the kitchen.
Her people were there, uttering their customary chirps and mews. No point in bothering with the larger one: he only fed her when the smaller one wasn’t there. The woman held the can opener, anyway, and the whoosh it made was followed by a tantalizing scent. This was something they usually shared with her, pouring the juices into a saucer, and Billie rubbed against the woman’s ankles in happy anticipation, stating her claim both to the person and the food she held.
The woman made a sound she used to express a confusing range of emotions, including affection and territorial defense and polite offering, but always somehow directed toward her, so Billie recognized the sound. This time, it meant polite offering: the saucer of fragrant liquid was duly set before her. She lapped contentedly, and purred her appreciation.
Her people sat at the table, eating with their hands as they always did, the larger one making discontented noises, the smaller chirruping lightly to distract him. Billie listened to their cries while she cleaned her face and whiskers, and wondered how he could be unhappy with such a delicious treat before him.
Suddenly she noticed a deep red light outside: The doorway on the island was opening. She ran toward it, forgot about the glass door, hit her nose. She skittered along the polished floor and scrambled onto the deck.
A low red light the color of heat, the smell of blood, spread out from the island’s rocky point. Waves rippled through the light, the crests of the waves rising higher and higher, drawing closer together. The light kept folding on itself until it fused into an opening through which she could see ground and the bottoms of shrubs. This was the doorway her person’s father had made into otherside. The opening on the island was large, but the openings that rode the crests of the waves grew smaller and smaller as they got farther away from the old man’s machine. The one near her house was cat-sized.
Billie heard rustling from otherside that was more than just the wind: it was patterned like a food search. Her whiskers tingled with excitement.
She looked back at her people, who were chattering away, oblivious to what had happened. It puzzled her that her people, who could open refrigerator doors, doors to inside, to outside, to cabinets of food, never saw these doors. When Billie stared at a doorway to otherside, they would stare at her with puzzled expressions on their faces. They would look where she looked, and seem to try to see the doorway, but clearly they never did. The first time Billie returned through a doorway and landed beside the man, he jumped and spilled his drink. Then he blamed Billie.
The old man had never seen the doorway, either, even though he had made it.
Billie returned her attention to otherside. A small rodent came into view, nose twitching with puzzlement. It smelled something it didn’t like, probably cat, and scurried away. Billie leaped after it. The doorway closed behind her.
*   *   *
“If this afternoon doesn’t go better, I’m going to strangle those kids myself,” Max said. With his finger, he drew a frowning face in the condensation on his iced tea glass.
Emma shook her head and clicked her tongue. “And you want to drive a school bus.”
“The advantage of fictional kids, especially comic characters, is you can strangle them whenever you want to and not get arrested.” With a forkful of tuna and lettuce halfway to his mouth, he stopped and stared at Billie, who had suddenly tried to run through the glass door. She made a frantic effort to get around the door, succeeded and, once outside, promptly sat down. “Your cat is wierd.”
“All cats are weird.”
“Maybe I ought to give one of the kids in the strip a cat,” Max said. He was halfway through his salad. Emma could see he was cheering up.
“Oh? And could you think like a cat?” she said.
He shrugged. “That’s easy. They only think one thing: feed me. The real problem is I’ve never been able to draw a cat.”
Emma stiffened, listening.
“What?” Max said.
“I think I hear a siren.”
“First smoke, now sirens. You … you’re right,” he said, as it grew louder.
They hurried out onto the deck. The emergency siren blared, supplemented by the wail of an approaching fire engine. Billows of smoke rose from the lakeshore.
“I told you there was a fire,” Emma said.
Max rushed through the kitchen toward the front door.
Wanting to put Billie inside, Emma looked around for her, but the cat was gone. Scared off by the sirens, Emma supposed. Max was already going out the front door, and she hurried after him.
From the steps, Emma could see Bootsy and Dana come to the edge of their lawn, perplexed expressions on their faces. “Where’s the fire?” Dana called out. The rough beard he’d been cultivating this summer was newly trimmed and, together with his arched eyebrows, gave him a Mephistophelean look. Bootsy had scissors in her hand and Emma suspected she was responsible.
“On the lakeshore,” Max shouted.
Just then, Rutledge Harrison ran from behind Dana’s house and across his lawn. Rutledge was pulling on his volunteer firefighter’s jacket as he ran. His helmet was already in place. The long, thin face was unsmiling, his concentration locked on the fire in a way that increased Emma’s uneasiness.
Dana’s perplexity changed to annoyance at the sight of Rutledge crossing his lawn. Emma remembered Dana had been willing enough to agree to Rutledge’s right-of-way when he’d wanted to buy the property, but now that he had what he wanted, he was annoyed at having to keep his part of the bargain.