I sat in a burgundy leather armchair in the study of my parents’ Norwood house, drinking tea and shuffling through old magic cards that had never existed. It was Christmas Eve.
My father came in. “Merry Christmas,” he said, tossed an envelope into my lap, then headed off to bed. A letter? Who knew I was here? Someone named Okami, apparently. The letter contained a single, typed sheet of notepaper in which Okami invited me to submit to a new magazine he was starting. He wanted something quick and dark, and he wanted it soon.
I had just the thing!
Ecstatic, I turned the envelope over, and realized I knew the return address. It belonged to an anime, comic and gaming store in an underground mall. It closed at midnight. If I hurried, I could make it. I shuffled through papers, found the story, pulled on coat and scarf and took a last look at the address.
Along the bottom of the page, I noticed a line of writing in a thin, feminine hand: a warning. “Don’t come after dark.” I shrugged it off, tossed the envelope onto the chair and headed out. I was just going to drop of the story and leave.
Danielle was sitting on the kitchen counter in her PJs, playing with her laptop. “Where you going, Boon?” I told her. “Can I come? I’m bored.”
“Sure,” I said. “Let’s go.”
The mall was a series of angling, claustrophobic corridors connected by stairwell after stairwell leading down, then up, then down again. The walls and the floor and the ceiling were all white, all windowless. Who knew how far we were underground? Every shop window was dark. We hadn’t passed a single person.
“Where is everybody?” said Udi. “The mall doesn’t close for half an hour. It’s Christmas Eve!”
She was right. I was beginning to worry about that warning.
I shoved the story under my arm, fumbled in my pockets for something reassuring.
My fingers found the smooth, textured handle of my scrimshaw penknife. I wrapped an arm around my sister’s shoulders. We walked faster.
We were almost to the comic store by the time we noticed the two white cats following behind us.. It wasn’t clear how long they’d been there, but all of a sudden they were desperately friendly, pawing at us, rubbing against our ankles as we walked. I stopped to pet one and it jumped up into my arms. Udi tried to ignore hers. It was freaking her out.
At first glance, Okami’s was as dark and dead as all the other stores. Ultra-violent, ultra-cute anime girls on comic covers lined the walls from floor to ceiling. A cardboard stand-up of a cartoon dragon. A glass case, where they kept all the really rare and valuable stuff. More magic cards that didn’t exist. And behind the glass case, blending in so well with her surroundings I hadn’t noticed her until I looked her in the eye, a skinny asian girl in a ponytail, dressed all in black, with an expression of blank astonishment on her face.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I got your call for submissions letter. I was in town. I just came to drop this off.” I slid the story towards her across the glass.
She stopped it, turned it around and slid it back. “I can’t take this now.”
“What? But your letter said–”
“Look, I’m sorry, but I can’t take it. We closed early today. Don’t you know you’re not supposed to come here at night? You can bring it tomorrow. During the day. Now I think you’d better go. Quickly, all right? Get out of here.”
I was confused. I wanted to protest, to ask her to explain. I wanted to give her my story. “The Nine-Tailed Cat”. I knew they’d like it. I knew it was right up their alley. But the look on her face made me back away, grab Danielle and rush back the way we came.
Luna (for the cat in my arms was surely Luna, Singing Brook Farm’s fuzzy white female demon) yawned and pawed at my chest, claws poking gently through my shirt and into my skin, her unmistakable, eerily humanoid fifth claw sticking out like a thumb. It was like she wanted to reassure me, convince me things would be fine. I wasn’t convinced. Udi’s cat kept pawing at her, meowing plaintively.
“God,” she said finally, after the white mall corridors had blurred past us for who knows how long. “Aren’t we at the end yet? Why does this mall have to be so big?”
“We’re getting close,” I said. “Five more minutes.”
“Oh, fine!” Udi gave an exasperated sigh and scooped up the second white cat.
We were almost to the entrance. One more flight of stairs…
She screamed and dropped the cat. It must have clawed her or bit her. It ran into a corner and sat down licking its paws. “Ohmigod, Boon. Something’s happening to me! Help!” She held up her arm. It was thinning, elongating before my eyes. White tufts of cat hair sprang up out of her skin. Her hand was shrinking. She was turning into a werecat.
I put Luna down with an accusing look. Her green-white eyes were reproachful.
I fumbled in my pockets for the scrimshaw knife. A sailing scene carved in the handle, a ship and a rocky shore. I’d bought it on a stupid impulse at a tourist trap in Newfoundland. In the real world, it was already many years lost.
I flicked it open, locked it in place. The blade was a warm, clean gleam under the mall’s ghastly pale fluorescent lights. Pure silver.
I gave it to Danielle. “Prick your finger with this. It’s silver. It might help.”
Her hands were shaking. She crouched down, put her hand on the floor, palm facing up, and raised the knife. I was afraid she couldn’t do it. She wouldn’t press hard enough.
She grimaced and brought the knife down. It pricked her finger. I saw a little smear of blood.
“Did it cure you? Did you feel anything?”
Udi nodded, face pale, lips hanging open. “Bliss. Relief. Understanding. Complete understanding of everything in the universe all at once.”
I thought she must have been joking, playing bitter sarcasm for all it was worth. Maybe the catness was already taking over her mind. But the way she said it sure didn’t sound like it. And her finger looked better. Pink and healthy.
“Then do it again,” I said. “Harder. Cut deeper.”
She shook her head. “You do it,” she said. She gave me the knife.
Five minutes away from the exit.
I ran my thumb across the blade. There was a catch at the very tip, a tiny, sharp burr I could never get out no matter how many times I tried to burnish it away with file or stone. That burr was what had pricked her. But I needed more than that now. I got a good grip on the handle. I held her wrist tight against the floor, positioned the knife just over the marks of the bite, right along the meat of the palm.
I gritted my teeth and tensed my muscles to slice–
And I woke.