My Exploding Cat

Just stories and drawings really, no actual fissile felines.

Phoenix: Chapter 4

“Where have you been?” Mark asked when I got home.

“Chatting with a friend,” I replied. It was, after all, true.

“Girls,” Mark sighed. “Talk, talk, talk.”

“Yes, girls,” I said. “The same girls you were begging me to form social contacts with yesterday.”

“Fair enough,” he said, taking a bite out of his sandwich and rummaging around in the kitchen shelves for more food. I didn’t take note of the ingredients this time.

“I can cook,” I offered.

“I know you can,” he snapped, which was unusual for Mark. First, that he seemed more irritable than usual… and second, that he was turning down food.

“Out of date, my eye,” he muttered, reaching back into a bag on the counter for more Doritos, his favorite comfort food.

“Out of date?”

“I tried to contact the Epselans,” he said. “I got a magically automated return message saying that, since I hadn’t contacted them for so long, my membership was out of date. After all I’ve done for them…”

I wanted to know what Mark had done for the Epselans, but I didn’t want to aggravate him more. I knew how to recognize a situation that had been neglected and had become worse with age.

I knew better than to try and talk to Mark more. On those rare occasions that Mark got angry, it was best to leave him alone.

I went up to my room, which was still a mess of boxes. The furniture—my dresser, my bed, the nightstand, the lamps—were all lined up against one wall. Mark was the polar bear and I was the bird, so I typically made him move the furniture, while I would make the beds and stuff. At the moment, though, I didn’t want to bother him at all.

I undid the hiding spell, and my feathers grew straight back over my arms, prickling through my skin. Before I knew it, I had changed and my wings were ready for flight. So I took off, glad the ceilings in the house were high—something Mark had probably arranged. I was ready to move the dresser.

Regardless of the fact that I usually have the strength of a house fly, I was able to pick up most of the furniture. My bed and my dresser needed to be pushed, but I was finding that everything was much, much easier to move than normal. I mean, my arms were dead tired… but if I could manage not to drop the furniture, my wings provided all the force I needed.

Now came the fun part: opening all the boxes and all the drawers of the dresser and my desk, and zipping around the room, taking armloads of stuff from the boxes and dumping everything in its place: in other words, all over the place.

This, of course, caused some racket. Pretty soon, Mark was ripping the door open to see if I’d tried to move the furniture and had gotten hurt. Instead, he burst in on a completely set up room and a phoenix Epselan with an armload of knickknacks.

Instead of commenting something like “Localized earthquake, eh?” or “What did you eat last night?” like he usually would, Mark stared, rigid, at the furniture that his wimpy twelve-year-old adoptee had somehow managed to move—including a steel-frame bed and a hardwood dresser.

“Did you fly that there?” he asked.

“Some of it,” I said.

Mark sighed. “Your powers are starting to come through. Your wings are stronger. Bad.”

“Bad? I moved the furniture.”

“Yes, bad! We don’t know what to do with phoenix magic!”


“We! The Epselans!”

“What about me? I should know how to control my own magic,” I said.

“Well, you don’t,” he said. “Maybe some of the powers, but not the magic!”

“You act like you’re tossing me around like a hot potato,” I accused.

“Phoebe, I’m sorry, but your safety comes before your feelings,” Mark shot back.

I was ready to say, “I think your animalina is coming through, too,” but then Mark seemed to realize this himself. He went into a hiding spell—the fur disappeared from his cheeks, and his face softened.

“Sorry,” he said. “I think I need a little more human for this.”

I landed and perched on the metal frame at the foot of my bed. I found myself attempting to recall a point when I was in Mark’s place, and couldn’t find one. I had never been as stressed as he seemed to be, and I had certainly never felt like my phoenix side was dragging down my mood. On the contrary—it was fiery, and light, and bright, and burning with hot, flying energy that I never got while using a hiding spell. I couldn’t quite imagine a situation in which that wouldn’t be useful.

“What… did I just do?” I asked, still not sure. I didn’t exactly know how I’d moved the furniture, and I didn’t know if Mark knew that it meant something else was coming through.

“Phoenixes grow faster than humans,” Mark explained. “Your wings are developed enough to support the body you’ll have as an adult.”

There was a pause. I had no clue what to say, and apparently that was all Mark had to comment on the subject. So he changed it.

“I’m so angry with these idiots,” Mark said, obviously feeling inadequate and frustrated, but I could tell that it wasn’t the time for me to leave—not with Teddy in a rage. I patted the bed, inviting him to sit down, which he did.

“Could you get off the footstead?” Mark asked. “I know you’re light and all, but it makes me nervous—I feel like you’re going to fall off any minute.”

I beat my wings and jumped off the footstead, which rattled. Mark winced, seeing this as a confirmation that it was unstable, and I landed on his other side, cross-legged.

“Some people don’t know how to run their own stuff,” he growled. “Now what am I supposed to do with you?” He ran his fingers through his sweaty hair, which messed it up. But he didn’t bother to smooth it out, even though Mark hated it when his hair didn’t lie right.

“We could go on our own,” I suggested.

“That’s risky stuff you’re getting into, there,” he said. “I don’t want to put you in danger.”

“What’s riskier?” I asked. “Seeking these guys out, or letting me stay here like this?”

“It depends,” Mark said, running his hands through his hair again. “I’ve got to find a way to contact one of these guys”—He stopped.

“What?” I asked.

“Facebook!” he exclaimed with obvious glee.

“Facebook?” I laughed. “The Epselan leaders use Facebook?”

But Mark was already bolting straight out of the room. I wasn’t sure how long it would take for him to get onto all fours, if only to go faster.

He was on the computer in a nanosecond, typing like lightning. I decided to dodge this caffeine storm for now, and go back to putting my room together. I still had the armload of trinkets to sort through.

Thirty minutes later, Mark came back into my room looking depressed. Apparently, he hadn’t found his furry friends on Facebook.

“Two accounts hacked, five inactive for six years, four with, like, no information, and I don’t know the names of the rest of them—let alone whether I’m getting the right people. I wish I knew magic for this.”

That reminded me of something. “Mark, if I’m part mage”—

“You don’t know any spells,” he reminded me.

“Is there a way to change that?”

A light came on in Mark’s eyes. “The Agency!”

I was confused. “You’re going to go talk to spies about magic?”

“No, no,” Mark said. “That’s just… well, what you said is the reason they named it the Agency. It’s a sort of group of mages that make sure that the parallel dimensions don’t get into trouble, and that all the magical creatures play nice with each other—that kind of stuff. Since it’s called the Agency, though, anyone who doesn’t know what it really is assumes that it’s a spy agency and that everything is top secret—so they don’t ask any questions.”

“Parallel dimensions?” This didn’t help my confusion.

“Never mind,” Mark said. “It’s not our problem. But I bet they have contacts with the Epselans! This is right up their alley. I’ll try to get a hold of Daniel or Sophie—they’re generally the ones who organize the crazy stuff. Trust me, though—you want Daniel, or our taxi ride to the nearest Agency base will be a gryphon.”



“Just don’t eat a bunch of sandwiches beforehand,” I suggested.

“No kidding,” Mark said. “Daniel first, though. I’d rather see his talking cat than Sophie’s gryphon.”

“Is the cat an Epselan?” I asked.

“I don’t know—Messenger’s a little weird. She only shows up half the time, but even when you can’t see the dang cat, Daniel’s chattering at her.” He shook his head. “Mages.”

“So where’s the nearest Agency base?” I asked. I was liking this idea more and more—maybe I would pick up some magic there, too.

“Ten thousand miles away,” Mark said.

“Give me a week, and I’ll be able to lift…” I started, but Mark interrupted.

No, thank you, I’d much rather keep my feet on the ground.”


“Anyway, a week is too long,” Mark continued. “Who knows what kind of new ability you’ll have by then? You might need to jump in a fire every hour, for all we know. This is a job for the Agency.”

“Well, how are we going to travel, then?” I asked.

“Train,” Mark answered with conviction. “For most of the way, at least. There isn’t quite so much security on a train, not like there is on an airplane. And we would not pass security.”

Since Mark had pretty much decided that we were leaving within a week, I began to pack. Again.

Meanwhile, Mark was on the telephone; he had been almost constantly since I’d moved the furniture. He was definitely pulling strings with the Agency, and it seemed to take a lot out of him. I was biking back and forth from the grocery store just to ensure a steady supply of Gatorade so his voice didn’t go to the dogs. Or the bears.

“Thanks, kid,” he said, cracking open an ice-cold, bright red shirt stain in training.

I left in silence. Mark’s half-finished computer program sat, open, on the screen, but he turned his back to it, hunched over the phone.

I looked out the window at the Friday afternoon that loomed before us. I had never met a weekend I didn’t like… but this was different.

For one thing, I hadn’t managed to spot Leslie anywhere, even though we had three classes together. I had been looking forward to magic lessons, but now I was also worried for her safety. She had shown me her animalina, and she’d disappeared the next day. She could have been out sick, but it concerned me all the same. Yesterday, I had been running to keep up with her—now what? She was gone. It was too fishy.

For a part-phoenix Epselan who traveled constantly, I felt contained. Much too contained, like my freedom had been tampered with by the forces of magic. I had nothing to do. The activities mentioned by Mark before were all now impossible: I had no social contacts, and the TV wasn’t set up yet. Mark needed to use the computer and telephone, and I was trapped in a new house. It wasn’t like Colorado, where I could go out into the mountains and fly around, chasing birds and animals everywhere.

I stared out at the clouds. They were cumulonimbus: the big, fluffy clouds that stretch high into the atmosphere and bring an apocalyptic sense of impending rain. Cumulonimbus clouds are also the ones that look like things—boats or animals or people. I started looking for the shapes, but as I stood there, leaning hard on the windowsill, I found myself staring at the clouds without really looking at them, as if I were looking for the blue sky past them or searching for UFOs.

Unpacking more seemed futile. Who cared what the living room looked like? We weren’t going to be here. We didn’t have enough food in the house for me to start cooking, either.

“Why don’t I drop by the grocery store?” I suggested to Mark, who was still hanging over the telephone. He nodded and reached for his wallet. A key slipped out of his front pocket, which he snapped up off the floor with alarming efficiency. Handing me a bunch of crumpled green bills, he went back to his phone conversation and the email he was writing simultaneously.

I knew better than to attempt any inquisitive gestures. I was free—back on my ancient bike (which was probably heavier than I was) and pedaling as fast as possible—one of the closest socially acceptable activities to flying.

Dinner was interestingly varied. A dish of falafel sat next to a bag of ranch Doritos and a platter of grilled cheese sandwiches.

“Cabin fever?” Mark asked, cracking a wry smile.

“No kidding,” I said, tucking into more falafel.

“Maybe I should deprive you of entertainment more often,” Mark said. “This is excellent.”

I gave a little laugh. I wasn’t exactly feeling wonderfully cheerful. I was tired, and hungry, and unusually lonely.

I was beginning to know what Leslie had been talking about—“Haven’t you ever wished you could be all human?” It would mean that I would be chatting up some popular blonde valley-girl type, out by a public pool, instead of trapped in a new house that seemed, somehow, filled with paranoia. And I needed someone.

“You need to learn to be independent.” That had been another Leslie-ism, hadn’t it? Independence. I needed to not need people.

Which wasn’t going to happen.

Oh well.

“I think I finally got through to Daniel,” Mark said cheerfully, which explained his rise in mood. “The phone message I got sounded like his voice. I’m expecting a call around three tomorrow. Meanwhile, I got you a gift. You were still at school.”

“Where are we going?” I asked, a flash of hope showing up in the situation. If we were travelling, we wouldn’t have to sit inside so much. We would be moving. We would be doing something.

“Maine,” Mark said. “Halfway across the country—I know.”

“It would be a lot faster if we took a plane instead,” I insisted. “We have hiding spells.”

“Yeah?” Mark protested. “What about your wand?”

“I’ll tell people I’m a fantasy fan,” I said.

“You think they’ll buy that?” Mark said incredulously. “You think they won’t recognize the magic in it? Magical objects feel different—even normal humans can pick it up.”

“They’ll make excuses,” I said.

“No—you don’t get it. People are watching us. How, exactly, do you think people came up with talking-animal stories?”

Clearly, this was a touchy subject for Epselans. But I didn’t want Mark to know that I’d contacted Leslie. “How?”

“They saw Epselans!” Mark said, extremely agitated. “Back when those stories were written, people just… well, they just made stories. Now, people remember the stories, and if they become convinced that someone else has seen the same thing…”

“Well, then I could fly you over Lake Michigan,” I offered.

“You’re crazy! Over water, without rest?”

“I fly fast.”

“While carrying an adult? That’s more than your wings could take. They’re meant to carry a single adult—not an adult and a twelve-year-old kid. So don’t try and carry me any longer than you could carry a twelve-year-old now. You’d be relying on your own strength from there on out.”

It took me a few minutes to understand Mark’s logic, but I had to admit he had a point.

“Okay,” I said. “Train. Then… when are we leaving?”

“Tomorrow,” Mark said, with “adventure” written smack across his face. He was clearly excited—whatever he’d done with Daniel, Mark must have had fun. I couldn’t blame him for wanting to go back to that after maybe twelve years of settling down—Mark had always been dodgy about how old I was when he adopted me, except that I was a baby. Which meant—I realized for the first time—that he must have been around my age when he did so, and even younger when he worked with Daniel.

Then I realized how shocked I was. “Tomorrow?”

“Uh, yeah,” Mark said, suddenly embarrassed and immediately aware of how uncomfortable I was. “Do… do you want to go explode something in the backyard? I think we still have that potato cannon around here somewhere.”

“Just as long as you don’t stick your face in it again,” I said. “You don’t look good with one eyebrow.”

And that was where we spent the rest of the day.

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