The Dreamer: A Sneak Peek

The following is a scene from my newest novel, The Dreamer. I hope you enjoy, and don't let it give you too many nightmares...

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Isabelle Craten had a reputation of being one seriously nice, albeit odd, lady. That reputation would have taken a serious hit if anyone had stopped by at that particular moment.

“Damn it, Natalie!” she screeched, wading through a sea of cats which split in front of her. “God damn it, girl!”

It was hard for her to believe but the evidence didn’t lie; Natalie Mullen—dependable Natalie—had forgotten to stop by and give the cats their afternoon tuna. There were no two ways to put it, Natalie had not come by. Each of the food bowls was perfectly clean and still smelled of the Nature’s Miracle Isabelle used to clean them. Her cats hadn’t been fed in nearly twelve hours. Her babies were starving.

Isabelle wrenched the lids from the industrial sized cans, pushing her furry babies away from their bowl with a foot. Mewing filled the house, melting her heart as it always did. Those little creatures depended on her. They were precious and tender and depended on her. And it seemed that they depended on her more than she had ever thought. Could she trust no one anymore? Not even Natalie?

Isabelle filled the containers—buckets more like—around the house, pausing periodically to pet the more affectionate cats who bestowed her with a warm ankle rub. When the last of the cans of tuna was empty, she went to the back porch and threw the cans into one of the big garbage cans; she had asked the garbage company to deliver her three cans instead of one, which they gladly did, only doubling her monthly rate. You had to make some sacrifices to lead her lifestyle, and extra garbage cans were only the beginning. The cans of tuna were gallon sized tubs she purchased at the Sam’s Club in Gainesville. Every month she would make the twenty mile trek to that wholesale paradise and load her big Suburban with a thousand dollars worth of supplies; the tuna, fifty pound bags of kitty litter, hundred pound bags of crunchy cat food, and a heck of a lot of cleaning products—cats were wonderful, but they could make a terrific mess when they wanted to. Oh yes, she spent a lot of money on her babies, but it was worth it. She had a good job, so what did it matter if she spent most of her money on them instead of overpriced clothes and jewelry?

Isabelle knew what people thought of her. She knew about the stereotype she so aptly filled. People talked, especially the people in Oak Grove, but that didn’t bother her that much. Yes, she had to deal with the police from time to time, but she kept her house as meticulous as possible—it might never win a home award, but it was far from unsanitary—so the police could never cite her for a health violation. Yes, she spent a lot of money on her furry housemates, but money was made to be spent. The only thing she couldn’t escape, although she tried, was the loneliness she sometimes felt.

It was crazy, really. She was surrounded by creatures that loved her and depended on her, but every once in a while—usually when the days were gray and overcast—she felt completely alone, even though the couch she lounged on was filled with living souls. The people talked, and that was fine, but they also avoided her. Oh they were perfectly friendly, but they never made an effort to socialize with her voluntarily. It had been years since she had been invited to a neighbor’s cookout or birthday party. She was the creepy cat-lady, dontcha know? Can’t have her over. And that was fine by her, cookouts usually involved meat, and she had given that up years ago. But it would be nice to have someone around to tell her problems to. It’d be nice to have someone to talk to at dinner who had a vocabulary bigger than purr or meow. Most of all, it’d be nice to have someone next to her when she woke up.

“Just get rid of your cats,” her mother would say whenever Isabelle was brave enough to broach the subject on the phone. “They’re the only things holding you back.”

Easy for Mom to say, that lady hated animals. To her, animals were things to be eaten, not adored. Was that why Isabelle was so over the top with her cats, because her mom had forbid pets when she was young? Not at all. Thanks to her dad, the Craten house had been nicely filled with animals during her youth. Dogs, cats, even a hermit crab. Isabelle had grown up with plenty of pets, and when she got a place of her own, she started adopting her own. It had just gotten a little out of control somewhere along the way.

“Meow,” a black and white cat told her, threading through her legs affectionately.

“I know, Dezzy.” Isabelle bent and scooped the cat into her arms, cradling the creatures little head and scratching under the chin. Dezzy leaned her head back and closed her eyes in pleasure.

Men. Psh, who needs them? They never love you as honestly as this.

Ah, but that’s not exactly true, is it?

Isabelle trooped back into her house. The cats all crowded around the food bowls, and she took the opportunity to run the vacuum. She had long since abandoned the beautiful hardwood floors that had attracted her to the house—the cats scratched the living hell out of them—covering them with cheap carpet. Most people would think that a hard floor would be better than carpet with cats, but Isabelle knew better. Her cats were all very well trained and almost never had accidents. The only real problem left—and one the poor dears couldn’t control—was their dander. Well the carpet caught that all nicely, and a few runs with her Miele—eight hundred dollars and worth every penny—would suck all of that dander out just fine.

There were plenty of tricks she had learned over the past few years to keep a tidy house; clean during feeding time, vacuum twice a day, shampoo the carpets every Friday, and spread the food bowls about the house to thin the herd. Honestly, if people would just get their prejudices away, they’d see that she lived just fine.

Cats fed, carpets vacuumed, Isabelle went to the one place in the house her babies weren’t allowed: her bathroom. She took a long, hot shower, then changed into the pajamas she wore whenever she lounged around the house. After she slid the fleece shirt over her head, she examined herself in the mirror. She was twenty-eight, twenty-nine in a few months. Her body was still firm, her hair still dark. Not a creepy old cat lady at all. She could get a man if she really wanted to. Yep, she still had it. There was still time.

It wasn’t that she didn’t have luck with men, she had plenty. It was that she didn’t have luck in keeping men. Isabelle was a stone cold fox, and she knew it. Women with her kind of beauty always know it. Since she was about thirteen she had been brushing away advances by boys and, later, men. Not that she brushed them all away, mind you, but the advances came so often that she learned early on that she could be picky. Why date a boy with acne? She could date that boy with the twelve-pack. Why date a man who worked as a gardener? She could have a lawyer, or even a doctor—yum!

And she had dated doctors and lawyers. She had dated men who looked like models from Calvin Klein. Her job put her in contact with a never ending supply of handsome professionals, and most of them hit on her. Lonely at home, she might be, but Isabelle went on plenty of dates, thank you very much. It just always happened to be at his place instead of hers. She had to get them hooked on her before she took them home; that way they wouldn’t run away when the caught sight of her cats.

Great plan. Never worked. How long had her last relationship been? Six months? Yeah, at least that. But that guy—Dave, a tax attorney—had dropped her like a hand grenade the second she relented and took him home. Oh well, his loss.

Isabelle thought again of Natalie and felt anger prickle up her spine. The girl had been so dependable. She had been feeding the cats their lunch for almost a year now without missing a single day. Why hadn’t she fed them today? She hadn’t even called to tell her that she wasn’t going to be able to do it. So inconsiderate! Maybe I should call her and give her a piece of my mind! Isabelle thought, thinking of the lashing she would extol, then thought better of it. Natalie might really have a good excuse. Better to wait.

As for now, it was five-thirty and the light outside was a wonderful, golden afternoon. A spot of dinner would knock the edge off of her anger, then she could curl up on the lounge out back on the patio with a few of her kitties and a good book. That would take the edge off of her anger.

The cats flowed around her, mewing and pawing at her legs, as she made her way to the kitchen.

“What do you want, sweeties?” She bent down and scratched the closest one to her.

She expected the cat to purr and push against her hand like all of her babies did when scratched behind the ears. But that cat—Jimmy Boy was his name—didn’t do what was expected. Instead, he pulled away from her hand but not from her, craning his neck backwards from the hand and giving her a wide eyed stare.

“What is that about?” Isabelle had never seen a cat do that before, usually if they didn’t want to be petted they stayed away from her instead of snuggling right up to her feet.

“Did your siblings already eat all of the tuna?” She asked, thinking of the key factor in a cat’s life. If they had already eaten it, they would have set a new world record. She had put out about ten pounds of the stuff, and, fifty cats or not, that was a lot of fish to be eaten.

But there was still plenty of tuna left, she saw when she waded over to the nearest tub. In fact, most of the tuna was untouched. The cats seemed disinterested in it, like they suddenly had no taste for their favorite food. They milled around her, little ears pricked and eyes twinkling in her direction, but not so much as a single nose twitched toward the delicatessen left for them.

“What is it?” she asked again.

A chorus of meows in response, and that was no response at all; even Isabelle couldn’t speak cat.

“Perhaps y’all want your crunchy food, instead?” It was well past their normal tuna time, and she usually fed them the crunchy food around this time, so maybe…

YOW!

The shrieking yell of a cat startled her, making her jump. The cat who was responsible for the yell was at the back of the pack, near the couch: a stray tabby she rescued two years ago. The only reason she knew that he was the one responsible was because he had leap high when he yelled. So high that he was still in the air, scrabbling at nothing with all four paws, when she turned around.

“Skittles? What was that about?”

But she saw what it was about just fine a second later. Right at the base of the couch, at the dark entrance of the furniture’s underworld. It was a space that her cats usually loved, crawling under the couch to chase those illusive dust bunnies or just relax. There weren’t any cats under there presently, however, because at that precise moment, that dark underworld was the home to a massive rat.

The rat stuck its head out, whiskers wiggling a million wiggles a second. It was huge, almost half the size of her cats and had evidently scared the fur ball out of the poor tabby, because the rest of her cats weren’t in the least bit scared. While Isabelle was frightened at the unwelcome figure, the rest of her family obviously had one thought on their minds as they stared intently at the monster: dinner.

Nothing moved for a heartbeat, then the rat scuttled out from under the couch just a few feet. But a few feet was too much for its own good. An all white cat—name of Snowball, of course—struck like lightening, launching itself toward the rat with forepaws together and claws extended. The rat never stood a chance, receiving a neck full of nails which killed it instantly.

Isabelle’s heart had gone into a right tango at the sight of the rat, but it was over now. Her babies had protected her. They were now gathering around Snowball’s kill. She didn’t know how the rat had gotten inside, but it wouldn’t happen again. Rats? Pshaw, she had that covered.

She thought about trying to take the rat’s body from her babies, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that that plan wasn’t going anywhere; one does not simply take food from a cat.

“That’ll be fun to cleanup,” she said to herself, starting toward the kitchen. Half eaten rat, yay. Perhaps the rat was why the cats had been acting strange; they must have smelled it.

She had only taken a few steps through the pool of cats when she saw the second rat. This one was perched on the mantle over the fireplace. This rat was as big as the first, maybe even bigger. Gray, patchy fur and black eyes. Whiskers wicking up and down. Nose twitching in her direction.

“Ahhh!” she shrieked, backing away quickly. Oh she hated rats. Hated them.

Her babies either heard her shriek or smelled the intruder, because five of the cats broke from the main group around the first rat and charged at the mantle, leaping to the top of the sofa then to the recliner before launching themselves at the rat.

Fur collided and yells sounded. This rat didn’t die as easily; it had seen its attacker coming and had been prepared, dodging left and sinking razor teeth into the first paw that came striking its way. Blood flowed, jetting into the air and staining the wood. The bitten cat recoiled, holding its paw aloft, and managed to knock off every single one of the little glass cat figurines which had lined most of the mantle. The little figures shattered on the brick of the fireplace, glittering shards of glass sprinkled the air.

Other cats joined in, and the rat soon met its end in the form of sharp teeth clamped around its neck. The cat who snagged it gave it a death shake or two and let it fly. It sailed from the mantle and landed with a dull, final thud on the carpet near Isabelle’s feet.

Two rats was bad news. There was obviously a security issue with her house if such big rats could just mosey inside. Good thing the rats were stupid enough to show their little worm-tailed butts. Big they might be, but cats could handle any rat, no matter how big.

That thesis wouldn’t go untested, because the second rat wasn’t the last. Oh no, not even close. Now that the house of felines was nice and woken up, the rats came out to play. Not just a few rats, either, but a constant stream of them.

A gray streak shot from the kitchen, jetting across the carpet straight at Isabelle. She yelled and jumped, but needed not to have; one of her babies intercepted the rat, pouncing quickly and with an elated yip.

No sooner was that threat dispatched then three more rats rocketed out of a hole Isabelle was pretty certain hadn’t been in the baseboard by the TV just moments before. Once again the rats came right for her, and once again her babies killed the threats with ease. She was safe.

Too bad it wasn’t over.

More rats came out of the previously nonexistent hole. Two, three, five of them. And they were joined by gray menaces which came from under the couch at a run. They all made directly for her, their little beady eyes glaring a