Cat Crazy

by Alice Woodrome

Claire laid the manuscript back on her desk and took off her glasses. No need to read further—way too derivative. Claire couldn't concentrate, anyway. She sighed and looked out the window at the cloudless August sky. A gray pigeon on the ledge held its wings out from its body and looked directly in at her. Were its eyes really green? Wasn't the wicked cat at home enough? Claire took a deep breath, rested her head against the upholstered chair in her office and closed her eyes.

Working at the small publishing house, even when she was just a reader, had been exhilarating at first. Now she watched the clock like a bored school girl, anxious for recess. She hadn't seen anything that excited her in months, since well before the humiliating demotion. At first she was convinced Friedman House wasn't attracting talent anymore. She knew now it was something personal. Arden was not blind to her failings. After working her way up to production editor, overseeing over thirty fiction titles a year, he now had her reading through the slush pile. He tried to put a good face on it, but it was busy work.

Arden was more than her boss. They were a couple—had been for three years. He'd become her mentor when she came to the publishing house as an intern straight out of college. Working with Arden had been a dream. He was widely known as a rising star in the publishing world, the most brilliant man she'd ever known—handsome, too, in his meticulously tailored suits. He was very attentive to Claire, too. She learned more from him about literary theory and fiction writing than she ever had working toward her bachelor's degree. She could hardly wait to get to work in the mornings. After a few months at Friedman's she was in love. They dated for a year before he invited her to move in with him.

"Why should you pay rent on your own apartment when I have plenty of room?" He had kissed her tenderly and added with a smile, "I want you in my bed every night."

Within the week, Claire moved in with him and his cat, Muffin, an aristocratic Russian Blue. She never warmed to the cat, and vice versa. It had an unnerving habit of staring at her and had hissed and threatened to scratch her at their first meeting. But it seemed a small matter at the time. At least the cat wore a bell on its collar warning Claire when it was around.

There were some raised eyebrows at work. She overhead co-workers talk about her in the bathroom.

"I guess putting out is the secret to getting ahead in this business."

Claire had been mortified, but straightened herself, and came out of the stall with head held high. She looked at the women in the eyes. "Try putting in a whole day. I hear that works, too."

Claire would never have been that bold before she came to work for Arden, but having a perfect man in love with her, gave her courage. It was none of their business, anyway. She was in love. Besides, with an enormous student loan to pay off and a professional image to maintain, money was tight. Claire was elated at the more personal living arrangement.

The townhouse was in a fashionable neighborhood and the most elegant place Claire had ever seen. A graceful staircase just to the left of the palatial foyer set the tone. The impeccable rooms were spacious with high ceilings, skylights and furnished with beautiful antiques. In the living room a marble fireplace extended up to the crown moulding. Arden was a perfectionist. The spotless white rug said it all.

Life with Arden was wonderful at first. He was twelve years her senior, but it wasn't important. She loved having a man who was so together. He took care of her; he took care of everything, and he did it all superbly. For the first time in her life, Claire didn't have to worry about money. She bought expensive clothes and shoes—anything that struck her fancy. Arden encouraged it. Very little was required of her at home. She wasn't expected to cook, clean or do laundry—nothing that couldn't be taken care of with a quick phone call. Her primary duties were to be beautiful and smart, and she was both. Claire was his shining protégé, and he loved showing her off to business associates.

But that was before she began to slip. It started with a call from her father while she was at work. Her mother had tried to commit suicide again. It had been rough growing up with a schizophrenic mother, but many years had passed since her last hospitalization. Her mother had managed to function, albeit dulled by medication. Their relationship had always been strained at best. Claire had wanted so much to please her—had tried hard to be a good daughter, but it was futile. Her mother constantly suspected some subterfuge. Claire was accused of outlandish transgressions, then punished for her Mother's delusions. It seemed now like she had spent the whole of her childhood alone in her room reading Nancy Drew Mysteries. Claire escaped that household as soon as she could, attending a college two thousand miles away.

"Mom is doing much better now," her father told her. "The doctor has her on a new med now, and she's been talking a lot about patching up her relationship with you."

"Tell her everything is fine, Dad. I'm not mad at her anymore."

"Well, she can't let it go that easily. That last conversation she had with you has been praying on her mind. She somehow got it in her head that you hated her. I think that's why she got so bad again."

"I never did hate her." The veiled accusation did not escape Claire.

"I know, Claire." He paused and cleared his throat. "Anyway, she wants to visit you for a few days. You could talk with her—convince her that you still love her. It would help her so much—it would help me, too. Just make sure she takes her meds while she is there and she'll be fine. She could take a flight out tomorrow, if that's not too soon."

Claire froze. She hadn't told Arden about her mother's mental illness. "Dad, it's not a good time for me. Work's been crazy. I just can't. Not now."

There was silence on the other end for a few moments. Then desperation in her father's voice. "She's your mother. She hasn't seen you since your second year of college. I never understood why you didn't go to a junior college here so you could live at home and help with her. She felt abandoned, especially when you didn't come back to visit. You have a chance to make it right now. Please, do this for her."

"I can't, Dad. I'm trying to make a life here." Her eyes filled with tears and she could hardly get the words out. "She would ruin everything. I just can't."

Her father said he understood, though unconvincingly. Claire's heart sank after the call; and she buckled under the burden she thought she had left behind. But a visit from her mother would be impossible. Things were finally going well for her. Her mother would only screw up things the way she did in high school. She ruined every friendship, every relationship Claire ever had with her maniacal raving.

Six weeks later Claire attended her mother's funeral. This time the suicide attempt had been successful. She told Arden her mother died of a heart attack, and was relieved when he said he couldn't go to the funeral with her. She feared her own worth would be diminished in his eyes if he knew the truth. Her father was barely cordial during her short visit home for the service. He had discovered that she was living with a man "out of wedlock" when he called to tell her about her mother—yet another way she was a disappointment. Only fifteen or so people came to pay their respects at the brief grave-side service: family members she barely knew and people her father worked with. Claire was a stranger.

As the minister spoke a few meaningless words over the casket that held her mother, she pushed the emotions down. How could she cry for the mother she wouldn't let visit? What right did she have to mourn the loss of a mother whom she'd wanted nothing to do with? She held back the tears as they lowered into the earth the body of the woman who had given birth to her. She would not cry—she would not let the emotions come. It was the only way to bear what she must. She pushed harder until all the tears, all the grief—the remorse and anguish she didn't have a right to feel—were buried with her mother. Along with it she buried all the shame she felt growing up, all the bitterness, even the love. It was all in a hole so deep it couldn't touch her. She studied her father's face during the prayer at the end of the service, marveling that she felt nothing—nothing at all.

On the flight home, she told herself it was all for the best. Her mother had been miserable, and she'd made everyone around her miserable for years. She was gone and at peace. Maybe Claire could have some peace now. She had loved her parents, but they discouraged all her dreams and inflicted so much pain. It was all behind her now: the bleak childhood, the demands, the injustices, and expectations. She wouldn't let them spoil her happiness. She was finally free.

For a few months things were fine—at work and at home. Arden was particularly tender toward her the first few weeks and remarked how brave she was being in the face of such a loss. She loved him the more for his attentiveness. She threw herself into her work and did not tell Arden how little she felt the impact of her mother's death—how she had managed to push it down so deep she felt nothing since the funeral.

Then, out of the blue, strange things began to happen. It was nothing at first; at least it was easily dismissed. The color green started to appear everywhere. It popped up in odd places, a green notebook someone was carrying, a green pencil among the yellows, blouses, headbands, shoes, belts. The proliferation of green escalated over the course of several weeks. Day after day she tried to make sense of it all; but could find no rational or natural explanation. It got so bad, she couldn't go anywhere without green screaming at her. Was it possible that they all were in on something that she hadn't been told about, and green was the way they signaled to one another—the way they mocked her? There were noises, too: the sound of a bell jingling—like the cat's bell—coming from the storage room adjoining her office, but when she checked, the room was always empty.

Nights were the worst. She lay awake unable to dispel thoughts that grew more bizarre with every sleepless night: evil was overtaking her, her sins would find her out, her days were numbered. Most frightening of all were the belittling voices and whispered accusations in the darkness: "fraud—loser—murderer—whore." And there was Muffin's bell. It jingled incessantly during the night—every time the cursed cat moved a muscle. Arden slept through it all. During the day Claire felt like a zombie.

Arden noted her flagging performance and confronted her. "What is happening with you? This can't be about your mother, anymore. That was months ago, and you've been fine. But now, suddenly you're screwing up all over the place. It's getting ridiculous." He frowned and continued. "You're missing meetings, forgetting to relay messages, you pissed off Lander. I'm not even sure hes going to work with us anymore."

"I'm sorry." She lowered her eyebrows and put her hand over her mouth. "I know—I just—I mean, I know I haven't been with it lately. I'm not getting any sleep. There's so many noises at night. I keep hearing things, spooky things." She was ashamed to share the details, fearing that he would think she was insane.

"It's probably nightmares waking you up—an overactive imagination. Make an appointment with a doctor and get some tranquilizers—something. You know things have to change at work. This can't go on."

She did see a doctor, a GP she found in the phonebook. She wasn't about to tell him about the voices, or about her mother's schizophrenia. He would surely refer her to a psychiatrist, and she would end up locked away in a mental hospital. She wasn't mentally ill! Of that she was absolutely sure. The voices were real, the noises all were real. She just needed to get a little sleep and figure out what to do about them. She told the doctor she'd been too nervous to sleep. He gave her a prescription for Valium, and told her to make another appointment in a month to check back with him.

The pills helped a little, but three or four hours a night was all she slept. Arden's understanding and tolerance had its limits. When there was no improvement in her effectiveness at work, he consigned Claire to the slush pile.

"Just temporary until you're yourself again," he assured her. "We're falling behind anyway, and I can't hire another reader just now."

He hadn't fooled Claire. Oh, no! He had no intention of ever reinstating her. Arden was looking for a way out of their relationship. He found fault now with everything she did. They were still together, sharing meals and his bed—no intimacy, though. Not a kiss—not a touch. He was withdrawing—more every day.

"What's with the hair?" Arden asked Claire after a pitch session with an agent. "And look at the circles under your eyes. You simply have to get hold of yourself."

Claire glimpsed in the mirror and saw what he did: a faded flower. It wasn't that she had stopped trying. No one knew what an effort it had been the last few weeks just to get up in the morning to go to work after wrestling with her fears all night. It was impossible to pretend that everything was normal, even when she saw disgust in Arden's eyes. That look was becoming very familiar; he was tired of taking up the slack for a lover who had become an embarrassment.

She was a burden now—in more ways than one. Arden resented it when the Buick gave out and Claire refused to buy a replacement. She told him she needed to pay off her credit cards. True enough, but she didn't want to go car shopping. In a moment of clarity amidst all the distractions and confusion, she realized that she needed to start putting some money away. The writing was on the wall. It was just a matter of time before she would be on her own again.

"Get a car loan and make payments," Arden said. "That's what everyone else does."

"I will," she told him. "I just need time to save up for a down payment. It's not that big of a deal, is it? I mean, we work in the same office."

She still loved Arden, and it hurt to have him backing away just when she most needed a strong arm to lean on. That wasn't Arden; he was a practical man who didn't like complications. He wouldn't keep a former lover around just because they had history. She was free-falling, and it was becoming obvious, even to everyone at work.

An intern at the office asked her if she was coming down with something. "You look terrible," the girl said. The question sounded innocent, but it was in all of their eyes—in their glances to one another. Oh, she knew. She knew all right. They were wondering how long Arden would tolerate her deficiencies.

It wasn't her fault, though. She didn't know why it was happening, but it was useless to try to sleep. One night in the wee hours Claire almost figured out why her life had taken such a terrible turn—but not quite. Had she stumbled too close to the source of evil in the world? Yes, that was it—and someone didn't like it. Someone didn't want her to know the truth and was deliberately messing with her mind.

It was all so impossible, though, like the cat thing—especially the cat thing. Arden's cat had taken to staring at Claire all night. How can someone relax enough to sleep when every time she opened her eyes, there was the cat's green eyes shining in the darkness— magnetic eyes. Even with her own eyes closed she felt the evil orbs fixed on her. Evil incarnate—that's what the cat was. Anyone who really looked would see it—the evil in its piercing eyes. Somehow it had Arden fooled, but Claire knew—and that was the trouble. The truth was a dangerous thing to know.

She tried to shake off the craziness each dawn—just too far-fetched. There were manuscripts to read and a job to keep as long as she could. She hated bedtime—it got worse each night.

Desperate for sleep after days of lying awake all night, she added a sleeping pill to the tranquilizer she'd been taking, but even chemicals couldn't mollify the whispers, the accusations, the jingling bell. And it didn't stop the cat from staring. Sometime after midnight, the cat hissed, then the sound seemed to meld into words; "leave or die." It was too much. Claire lay clutching her side of the bed—eyes closed tightly—trying to push away all thoughts of the cat and the evil in its eyes. Her mind always led her back to the same fear and she couldn't stop herself from looking. The cat was always awake—always staring.

At three AM she couldn't take it any longer. "Arden, Arden—wake up. I need to tell you something—it's about the cat."

"What?" Arden rolled over to face Claire. "About Muffin? What's wrong?"

"It's her eyes. She's evil. Really, I know it sounds bizarre, but I can see it in her eyes. Even in the middle of the night, I can see it. Look at her." Claire pointed to Muffin at the foot of the bed. "See what I mean—do you see it?"

Arden groaned. "Give me a break. You're just having another bad dream. Go back to sleep." He rolled over.

"I haven't been sleeping—I haven't for days. How can I—with her staring at me with those eyes? Can't we at least shut her in the other room for the rest of the night? I need to get some sleep."

"Don't be crazy," he said. "Take a pill and sleep on the sofa in the library if Muffin bothers you. Maybe we'll all get some rest."

By dawn of that sleepless night, Claire knew where she stood with Arden, and she began to worry that he might be in league with the cat. Perhaps the cat didn't have him fooled after all. Maybe Arden was evil, too.

Claire avoided him at work the next day, but could think of little else. By quitting time she had almost convinced herself it was all just a lack of sleep. She'd heard of people hallucinating when they couldn't sleep.

Arden's disposition had hardened into hostility during the day. He barely said three words over supper, except to complain. "Did it not dawn on you to order something besides pizza? That makes twice this week—three times if you count the leftovers." He gritted his teeth. "Use your imagination, for Christ's sake. It's not like I expect gourmet meals—but a little variety would be nice."

"A little understanding would be nice, too," she snapped. "You have no idea what I'm going through. You try getting by with no sleep and see how you feel."

"You are such a drama queen. How hard is it to pick up a phone and order Chinese instead of pizza?"

Without answering, Claire got up from the table and climbed the stairs to their bedroom to spend the rest of the evening in front of the television, oblivious to what flickered on the screen.

The tension between them had not subsided by morning. Arden was curt on the drive to work.

"You are not going to forget to call the carpet cleaners again, are you?" Arden glanced at her, frowning, then looked back at the road. "Am I going to have to do that too?"

She didn't answer, but fingered the strap on her purse. What could she say? If she reacted, he would only accuse her of being melodramatic again. It was best to say as little as possible. Claire needed time to find another place to live—another job—another life. But how could she when she was barely able to drag herself around the life she already had? The only sleep Claire had gotten in the last week was a quick nap now and then in her office chair.

Claire was awakened by a tap on the door. She opened her eyes and glanced at her watch. It was Arden. They were scheduled to meet with an important client in an hour—one she had worked with before everything went sour. He smiled as he stepped into her office. It was the smile he used when he had something to sell. No surprise—things were clearly coming to a head that morning. He wasn't just miffed about the carpet cleaners or the pizza—or the dozen other ways she had disappointed him recently. Yesterday she'd forgotten to relay a message from Murray, and now Friedman's most prolific author was unhappy. Things were piling up.

She put her glasses on and forced a smile, "Hi. You're a little early, aren't you?" Had he noticed that she'd been asleep?

"I thought maybe we needed to talk." He avoided her eyes and went to the bookcase behind her and slid out a book. "I bet you have nearly every Nancy Drew Mystery ever published, don't you?"

"You aren't interested in my collection," she said. "What's up?"

"I guess I don't know how to say this, and I'm stalling." His smile vanished.

At least he was being honest. She'd hoped for more time, but Arden was here to dump her; she read it in his eyes. His eyes—Claire had never noticed it before. They were the same green as the cat's eyes. A bell jingled.

"Spit it out before you choke!" she glared at him.

He frowned and cleared his throat. "I think we both know things are getting a little out of hand. It hasn't been going well between us for quite a while." Arden sat in the chair in front of her desk and looked straight at her. "I don't know what's happening with you, but I can't stand by and watch you self-destruct."

Claire couldn't breathe, strangled by months of tension, pretending to hold things together, the terrible realization that her life was out of control. "So that's it?" She jumped to her feet. "Just like that—I'm dismissed from your life—from the life we shared?"

"No, that is not what I'm saying—that's not what I mean at all." Arden stood up and reached out to her, but she backed away.

"Don't touch me." The concern wasn't genuine. It was Arden's way of pretending he wasn't just abandoning her. She wouldn't let him whitewash the truth.

"You need help. You are letting yourself go to hell. Look at you. Your hair is a mess—your blouse is stained. You are not even bathing regularly anymore."

Claire squinted at him, her jaw clenched, daring him to continue.

"And your work is—well, you aren't working—not enough that anyone can tell. You're not prepared for meetings, and everyone is tired of carrying you. I'm tired of making excuses. You have been acting crazy, Claire. You need help and you better get it or…"

"Or what?" She wasn't going to stick around for threats. "To hell with you and Friedman's," she shouted as she opened the filing cabinet. She grabbed her purse from the top drawer and started for the door, "To hell with your cat, too."

Claire walked several blocks without any idea where she was going or what she was going to do. Arden's recital of her shortcomings played over and over in her head. At least she had left before any further humiliation. Everybody in the office knew she'd been on borrowed time.

Claire pinched her blouse with damp fingers and flapped it back and forth in an attempt to cool down. Her shoes were pinching her feet. She was thirsty—and had nowhere to go. There weren't many options. Her credit cards were near their limits, and would carry her only so far. She had enough money for only a couple of nights in a hotel—and only if she didn't eat. But what else could she do? She had no car and her father was on the West Coast. Even if he allowed her to come home, she wouldn't be able to face him. There was no one to call. Claire had lost track of her college friends, and she couldn't think of a single friend in the city who wasn't Arden's friend first.

She stopped at the first motel she came to—a cheap place on Commerce with tacky plastic flowers in the planter next to the tiny office.

The smell of curry greeted her as she opened a door displaying a hand written sign with the words, "no hourly rates." A bell rang, and a moment later a small dark woman came from the back. She wiped her lips on a paper napkin, "You want a room, Miss?"

"Yes, please." Claire opened her purse and handed a credit card to the woman at the desk. As she waited for it to be returned, she looked at the peeling paint on the walls. What would perfect Arden think of her staying in such a shabby place? Not that she cared. Why would she care?

The room was worse than the office had been. Claire sat on the bed and ran her fingers over the frayed beige bedspread. She faced the mirror over the dresser. Arden was right. She was a mess; she looked more at home here than in his posh townhouse. Claire wanted to cry but a laugh came out instead, and she couldn't seem to stop. It was all so ludicrous. How had this happened? Just a year ago she and Arden were happy—she had even expected a proposal of marriage. Now look at her—and all because of a damned cat.

Claire went to the bathroom and filled a glass with water from the chipped bathroom sink. She drank it all and filled the glass again. She didn't know what to do next. She wasn't hungry, though she hadn't eaten since supper the night before. Finding something to eat was out of the question, anyway; she didn't have a drop of energy left. She would not be sleeping, though—not with all she had to think through.

She didn't want to think. That only made matters worse. Claire needed to zone out for a while to restore some sense of balance. Then she would be ready to think sensibly. She switched on the television and lay back on the bed.

An old Star Trek was showing on the sci-fi cable channel. Perfect. She'd seen them all many times, and could often repeat the dialogue along with the actors. She needed something familiar and predictable, and James T. Kirk was that.

This episode was a bit odd, though. Was it possible that she had missed one? Parts of it seemed familiar, but the story line was confusing. And then it happened: Captain Kirk looked straight at her and said, "The cat must die." Incredible—but there it was. Claire was wide-awake, and Kirk spoke the words as clear as anything in life.

Claire turned the set off and paced the room. She tried to find a rational explanation for what had just happened. She knew it sounded insane—but she wasn't insane—this was real.

It wasn't as if something like this had never happened before. Lots of people heard things—saw things. They just weren't believed. People called them mentally ill and locked them up in mental hospitals—and evil continued.

Claire's own mother started communicating with aliens before she was diagnosed. Everyone thought she was crazy, Claire, most of all. But now she wondered if maybe it had been true. It was no more bizarre than Kirk sending a message through the television. When Claire was seven, her father had her mother put away for over a year after a suicide attempt. When they drugged her long enough, she quit talking to aliens, but she didn't let go of the memory—insisting it had all been real. She was never the same after that first hospitalization. The life had gone out of her. Evil had won, but it was years before Claire finished her off.

Claire turned the television on again. Star Trek was over and a movie had begun. A hijacker had taken over a spaceship. The man in control could blow up whole planets. Claire had to watch, even though she feared another message. The action was intense, and the violence, graphic, but no one spoke to her directly.

They didn't need to. One of the characters was named Claire. She was a prisoner awaiting trial for murder, in constant peril from the hijacker, as well as her captors. Circumstances had given her a chance to redeem herself. The fate of her home planet depended on the courage she could summon. To make certain the message was not lost, the evil man who had hijacked the spaceship had green cat-eyes.

It all made an odd sort of sense. Claire had been right about the cat. That realization brought a sense of justification. She'd seen the truth—it hadn't all been her imagination going haywire, brought on by the lack of sleep. The cat was, indeed, evil and the cause of all of her problems—and it held the key to every other evil in the world. Everything was so clear now. She hadn't stumbled onto the source of evil; she had been directed there. For some inexplicable reason, Claire had been chosen to rid the world of evil.

She had problems of her own, though. Claire had two weeks between her and the streets. The fates had given her a time limit to save the world. It wasn't fair. Why should she be singled out for this responsibility? Everyone else got to go merrily on their way. She hadn't meant to kill her mother. But there was no fighting it. Fair or not, Claire would have to kill Arden's cat.

It wasn't going to be easy. Claire had never even picked up the cat before, and the cat detested her. She couldn't count on anyone to help or even to understand. She would end up in the loony bin like her mother if she told anyone.

The night was horrible. Frightened and alone with only the light from a flickering streetlamp coming through the curtains, Claire was relentlessly confronted by her fears. They were almost tangible: shadows on the walls and eerie murmurs. Faint voices accusing her of killing her mother, and the bell, the almost constant jingle of the bell. Whether the sounds were coming from the next room or in the room with her, was not clear. She tried turning on the light, but it made her feel exposed. She trembled and prayed for morning. When the strain of the last few days caught up with her, she finally lost consciousness, but the eyes of evil—those cat eyes—followed into her dreams.

Claire woke at dawn, drained, as weary as if she had been chased all night. She walked across the street to a little diner to get a cup of coffee and to think. It was difficult to collect her thoughts with a throbbing headache, but she formed a plan. She would take a taxi to Arden's townhouse to do the deed. If anyone saw her, she would say she was collecting some clothes. It needed to be done, anyway. She would lock the cat in the bathroom and drown the wretched thing in the bathtub.

She could put the body in a pillow slip and take it with her. No one would be the wiser. Cats disappear every day. She would open one of the glass doors to the terrace—just a crack—for effect. There would be no body for Arden to find, no blood on his precious white carpet. She would have done what she had been commissioned to do. Then the fates would give her back her life. They would have to. She would be absolved of the part she played in her mother's death. She could be happy again. The person who defeated evil would have to be rewarded.

She took a last drink of cold coffee, left a bill on the table, and walked back to the motel. She waited in the room until Arden would be at work, then called a taxi. In less than fifteen minutes, Claire was in front of Arden's townhouse. She told the driver to wait.

Claire let herself in and called to the cat as she walked into the foyer. "Muffin, Muffin—here Kitty Kitty."

The cat appeared above her on the banister. Claire caught her breath and her heart began to race.

"There you are Kitty," she said in a shaky voice that could not have fooled Evil Incarnate. "Come here, Muffin—here Kitty Kitty."

The cat backed away as Claire climbed the stairs toward it. When she got to the landing, the cat darted into the master bedroom and onto the bed; it crouched down to watch her. Claire tried to act nonchalant as she stepped slowly to the footboard and picked up an afghan that was draped over it. Taking a corner in each hand she stretched her arms apart and let the afghan fall open before her. With a quick jerk, she flung it up over the cat. It missed the mark, covering only part of the animal. Muffin meowed loudly and raced out of the room to the landing. Claire followed, wishing she'd had the forethought to close the door as soon as they were in the bedroom together.

The cat ran back down the stairs into the living room with Claire close behind. She tried to corral the cat into a room where it couldn't escape, but it stayed in the open area of the house. At one point it leaped onto the back of a victorian love-seat, puffed up its fur, and faced Claire. It glared at her, its green eyes glowing. Claire paused as the cat dared her to come closer. The eyes were frightening, but Claire had to do as she had been charged. She slowly moved toward it and grabbed at the cat. It bolted away in plenty of time and dashed into the kitchen again. This time Claire hurried after it, and quickly shut the french doors that separated the kitchen and breakfast area from the dining room. Finally, she had a chance of capturing the vile cat.

When Claire rushed at it, the cat jumped up on the counter and then onto the refrigerator. Muffin looked down at her with evil eyes—toying with her. It escaped capture with apparent ease while Claire tried again and again, knocking over a canister of flour, and then a Boston fern on a plant stand by the terrace doors. Finally, after a frantic chase, Claire grabbed its tail, closed her eyes and hung on. The cat growled and fought with everything it had, scratching across her neck and arms with outspread claws and viciously biting her hand, drawing blood. Claire didn't let go as she tried to get her other hand around the writhing cat. The devil could not be immobilized, and pulled away after a deep scratch across Claire's eyelid and cheek.

She grabbed a knife from the kitchen drawer, razor sharp as Arden always kept them. The next time she made contact with the cat, Claire would be armed, too. She lunged at it again and again as she knocked over more canisters, spreading coffee beans over the tile floor. The cat tore into the breakfast area and jumped on top of the table. Claire leaped with outstretched hand and again stabbed at the cat. The crystal centerpiece was the only casualty.

She tried repeatedly, but it was no use. They went around and around the table and the cat was always a few steps ahead. Claire became dizzy and had to stop to get her bearings. She staggered back to lean on the kitchen counter, but instead stumbled against the french doors. They swung open and Claire fell into the dining room. The cat was out of the kitchen in a flash and shooting toward the stairs before she could get to her feet.

Claire couldn't give up. Everything depended on it. Still unsteady on her feet, she hurried to the stairs as the cat raced up to the landing and jumped to the banister, then looked down with arched back, taunting her—hissing. Claire's legs were wobbly as she climbed the stairs as quickly as she could with the knife at the ready. When she was three steps from the top, it screamed and jumped at her face, knocking her off balance. The knife flew out of her hand and Claire fell back, tumbling down the stairs until she landed in the foyer. She felt something snap in her right leg. The knife lay a couple feet away. Claire reached over to retrieve the knife. Steadying herself by leaning on whatever was in reach, she stumbled around in search of the cat; her right leg throbbing in pain and barely able to support her. The cat was in the living room, crouched down and staring at her from across the room.

What chance was there now of killing it? She couldn't even walk. There was no hope of ridding the world of evil—no hope of forgiveness. She had failed. She sank to her knees on the white carpet. The cat lowered its head to the floor, and ever so slowly, inched toward her, its eyes burning green. Claire dropped her eyes to the bloody wound where the evil creature had bitten her hand. That bite had infected her with evil now, too. There was no escape—nothing she could do to save the world or herself. The knife gleamed in her hand— her wrists lay before her. She began to laugh at the irony of it all. There would be blood on Arden's white carpet after all.

The End

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