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Jay slowly pulled back the blanket, revealing the curled-up form of the small sand-colored tabby cat, who blinked up at him sleepily, then began to purr.
“Hey,” he said weakly. “Hi.”
Well, maybe this wasn’t so weird. Hannah had told him that dreamers could bring things out of dreams—or had she? Either way, either he’d figured out how to, or the cat had decided to come with him through its own accord. He wasn’t sure how that would work either, but… well, cats already had a reputation for weirdness, even back when he hadn’t thought any of this stuff was real.
Finding out which it was might take some experimentation, he thought wryly.
“All right,” he said aloud, sitting up and pulling the cat into his lap, putting it on its back. “Let’s take a look at you.”
It was definitely the exact same cat, down to the injured paw, although, now that it had been cleaned, the wound was looking a lot better. He contemplated if he could bandage it, but he wasn’t confident he could wrap the paw in a useful way, and the bleeding had seemed to have stopped again.
“I guess I own a cat now?” he asked it. It purred louder, making biscuits in the air, and he scrubbed fingers through his own currently kind of grungy hair. “Okay. Well. I guess as soon as I’m up and about I have to get some things for you.” This cat was going to need food, litter… he wasn’t even sure what else. A vet appointment, certainly.
That at least he could do now. He grabbed his laptop, putting it beside himself and googling for a local vet. He found one that opened at eight-thirty, and rolled around for an hour just resting, eating leftovers for breakfast, writing out the details of the two dreams journeys he’d been on so he wouldn’t forget about them, and otherwise catching up on his real online life while waiting for it to open, then gave it a call.
“Kingsport Central Veterinary.”
“Yeah, hi,” he said, as always a little awkward over phone conversations. “I found a stray cat and I, uh, was thinking I wanted to keep it, so I wanted to make sure it had all its shots and so on. Can I make an appointment?”
“Let me see—It looks like we have an opening at 11:30. Will that do?”
“I think so. Thanks.” Honestly, three hours out wasn’t bad. The idea of doing something as mundane, if unexpected, as picking up something like cat supplies seemed like such a relief that he could cry.
He dressed properly, leaving the cat snoozing in his bed, stretched out with its eyes squinched shut in pleasure and curling up, and petted it lightly before he headed out. “Stay here for now,” he said. “I gotta get you some things so this is your home too.”
It “mrp”ed sleepily, and he hesitated a moment on whether or not to shut it in his room—not fancying the risk that it’d use his blankets as a litter box rather than somewhere else in this hoarder’s nightmare of a house—but he also didn’t want to risk it waking up to find him gone and panicking, maybe hiding somewhere he wouldn’t be able to find it. He could walk around with it later and make sure it was exploring in nonthreatening circumstances.
He shut the door, then headed out to the car, driving down into town where he vaguely recalled seeing a pet store earlier. Twenty minutes later, he was out again with a litter box, cat food, treats, a carrier, a cat bed, a running water dish, a food bowl, a bunch of toys, and the amused congratulations of the pet store employee who’d been helping him out.
While he was in the plaza with the vet, he stopped by a pharmacy to get some first aid supplies in case the cat’s wound opened up—or in case he hurt himself on something old and gross in the house, or maybe got bit by some horrible dream monstrosity—and also grabbed himself some quick food supplies from the pharmacy as well. A box of eggo waffles, some cans of soup, bread and jam, and he was ready to head back again.
Back home, he put the waffles on—since he’d had leftovers for breakfast, he might as well have breakfast for lunch—filled the litter box, and placed it in the laundry room so it would be somewhat out of the way. He put the food and water in the kitchen at the end of the counter, then headed back upstairs.
The cat was awake when he got there, pawing at the blankets; it had managed to peel up the corner of the fitted sheet. Jay winced, fully expecting the accident he’d feared, and came over to check—but there wasn’t anything, and the cat seemed less like it was trying to cover something and more like it was trying to get into the mattress.
Aw, shit. These mattresses had been here for a while; his heart sank. Was there a mouse? He hadn’t heard any mice running around, no rats in the walls, but that didn’t mean anything. “Uh, buddy, what’re you after?” He picked up the cat and put it on the floor to check the mattress himself.
The cat sighed at that, then rose on its back feet, shoving its head at the line between mattress and box spring as if trying to squish itself in there. Jay steeled himself for whatever horrible thing he was about to see, whether rodent nest or insect pile, and pushed the top mattress back to check the condition of the box spring.
It was fine, in perfectly good condition, clean—relatively new at the time she’d left, apparently—and, lying on the box spring, right under where his head would have been laying on the mattress and pillow above, was a palm-sized round disk, the twisted pentagram with the flaming eye on it, with a key attached to the bottom of the disc.
“Uh,” Jay said weakly. The cat, having lost interest in the mattress now that he’d pushed it back, wound around his ankles.
So Aunt Grace slept with a Sign under her mattress. Now, or always? If she’d owned all these Signs, then it made sense she’d have them around the apartment. On the other hand, if she’d used them to go through the door with her physical body, wouldn’t they have gone with her? He wondered if there was even a way to know if it had been here because she’d put it here, or if it had appeared because of something he’d done—because of dreaming? Meeting Yidhra?
Then again, there was the reed symbol he’d found in the attic, and Ashesh had implied he knew it would be there. Would meeting Camden have made it appear? Should he keep it away from Camden, if so?
Or had it already been there? If it had been, the other two would be too. And if it wasn’t, the other two would appear when he did something to cause it—as Louis had indicated could happen with the Yellow Sign.
Or maybe, he thought glumly, it was both. There were Signs here, and more could appear. Maybe he’d end up swimming in Signs. Fucking drowning in Signs.
But that was a problem for a future Jay, he decided firmly. If he thought of a good place to look for existing Signs, he’d go looking. Otherwise, he could look toward triggering them and see if that worked. Either way, he needed ideas on where to look, or how to trigger it, and he hadn’t thought of either yet. Maybe later today he’d ask Ashesh, if he couldn’t come up with his own ideas—he probably should talk to him sooner or later anyway, since he’d learned more since they’d talked the day before. But, Jay thought glumly, he didn’t really want to owe Ashesh. If he were going to talk to him, he had better think through what exactly he wanted to ask, and what, at most, he was willing to offer up.
But for now? He had a new cat to take care of. He looked at it; it had stopped winding around his ankles and was trotting around the room with curiosity. “You seem kind of comfortable with being indoors. Did you belong to someone in Ulthar?”
The cat, obviously, didn’t answer, but began exploring the hall outside with no sign of trepidation. It occurred to Jay that he might have stolen someone’s cat, but… well, he decided, it seemed more likely it was a stray. For all that it was soft, and had clearly been fed, there had been a lot of cats wandering the banks where he was found, and from how the barkeeper had talked, people probably put out food and water for the strays. If it was familiar with the indoors, again, people might just allow them into stores and so on. Certainly the barkeeper hadn’t minded him bringing it in.
So yeah, hopefully that. Anyway, he hadn’t chosen to steal it, which had to count for something.
The cat had discovered the stairs and was limping down them, so Jay hastened to catch up. “Let me show you your stuff,” he said, scooping it up to carry it the rest of the way down to the basement, ignoring the ominous door to take it into the laundry room. “Here’s your litter box. So you can, uh, use the bathroom.” Even if it could understand him, did it know what a bathroom was? “You know, relieve yourself, then bury it.”
He put the cat down in case it needed to use it; it went over, sniffed at it, looked up at Jay with an expression like Yeah, I know, and turned to explore the rest of the laundry room.
“Ok, you can look around later, but I want you to know where your food is too.” Jay carried it back upstairs, to the kitchen, and put it down in front of its food dish.
That it liked. Jay’s waffles had popped out at this point, so he ate them at the same time, enjoying the hunched form of the cat and the loud crunchy way it chewed, finding a moment of peace in that simple thing.
He still had a short time left before he had to go to the vet, so now that he was assured the cat was perfectly comfortable here and unlikely to hide, he left the cat to it and headed back upstairs to Grace’s office—or so he thought; moments later, he heard a meow and the cat followed him, trotting after.
“Hey, clingy thing,” he said fondly. He let the cat in with him and watched it explore for a few moments, then popped back out to grab his laptop to take with him into the office, set it up next to Grace’s computer, and powered her machine back on, getting to work.
Recovery was, he quickly saw, a failure. None of the basics worked—the USB he’d confirmed he’d filled the night before was blank, the files on her drive weren’t recovering through any of the standard means, and even specialized recovery utilities got nothing. He’d suspected as much, but he didn’t like it; it was worth continuing to try, he decided, at least later.
He still had her paper files to look at, but not enough time to do so before the vet, so he locked the new Sign in the desk with the other one, then scooped up the cat from where it was sitting in the windowsill watching outside and brought it to its carrier.
“Mow? MOW? MOW??” The cat’s wails started at once as Jay attempted to put it in. It dug its paws into the sides—even the injured paw—to try to keep itself from being put in, and thrashed around. Betrayal radiated off it.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Jay told it finally, sweating, slightly scratched, and disheveled. “I’m not trying to lock you up. I just need to use this to take you to the vet. A doctor for cats. It might not be a fun experience but it’s so I can make sure you stay healthy and get your foot all fixed up! We’ll come right back after and I’ll let you out, I promise.”
The cat glared at him again, but something about his tone must have convinced it, because it finally slunk in on its own, its tail lashing.
“Good kitty,” Jay told it, and shut up the carrier, picking it up and taking it out to the car.
As he shut the door, he paused, frowning up at the sky. Something about it didn’t look quite right. The cloud shapes seemed wrong somehow, making him anxious. Nerves, he thought. Just his dream carrying through into the daytime. Still, he strained his eyes, staring up, watching the clouds shift and move like they were trying to get closer.
His phone warned him that he needed to leave now to get to the vet on time, and he tore his gaze away, getting into the car himself. It was probably nothing.
The cat stayed quiet through the car trip, occasionally bumping around in the carrier as it turned itself around in there, and also was quiet—definitely sulking, though—as he carried it in.
“Name?” the receptionist asked.
“And your cat’s name?”
Right, shit, it needed a name. Naming a dream cat felt like a big commitment, but he had to give something to the vet—even if he changed what he called it later. “Ulthar,” he blurted out, when nothing else came immediately to mind.
He repeated it, and she typed into her computer. Not long after that, the cat was seen—it was equally affectionate with the vet, and seemed to be over its sulk once it realized it got to be talked to and petted. Jay learned that the cat was male, relatively healthy but underweight, and was unchipped. The cat got its shots, a chip, and antibiotic ointment, along with a lot of praise for being a Good Boy.
And then he was back to the car under the unnerving sky, ready to head back to his new home with his new cat.
[What’s next for Jay?
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