Tom launched upright, fighting to free himself. Something huge and thick tangled around him, suffocating him. Lashing out, the binds fell away, and he breathed again. His heart pounded, and it was a while before he noticed he was in his own bed, in his own room, and a pale dawn crept through his window.
He slumped back onto his pillow. Just a dream. A silly, harmless dream. Sweet relief washed over him, and he broke into fits of laughter. I was starting to believe it! Letting out a long, rattling sigh, he glanced up at the clock on the wall. Twenty past eight. Nice and early, too. In his head he was already planning his day: head up to the shop for the papers; cook a full English breakfast; work on his presentation; catch up on his shows recorded last night…
It was only when Tom rolled out of his Kingsize bed that things started to go wrong. His bed was massive –precisely why he’d brought it – but he never recalled it being this big. When he reached out a leg to plant on the floor, he found only air. He lost his balance and tumbled out, falling further than seemed right before finally hitting the floor. Luckily, he landed on his feet.
Staggering, he looked up at his bed. It towered over him. So did his desk, walk-in wardrobe, wall-length fish tank and everything else. Why did he feel so small? He tried to turn his neck, but he felt sore all over. He tried to stand up, but his back legs wouldn’t support him properly, and he slumped back on all fours.
Bewildered, he crawled out of his room, pushing his way through the crack in the door, and made for the bathroom. The door was closed, and he couldn’t reach the handle. Well, if his dream had been strange, this was shaping up to be far, far worse.
He looked down the stairs. They were a big and bold feature even when he felt his normal self, but from this new angle they looked positively hill-like. Reaching an arm out, he tried to lower himself down to the next step – until he caught sight of his arm.
Black fur. No hand: only a paw.
With a yelp of surprise he tumbled forward, crashing down each and every step until he landed painfully and awkwardly in the foyer. His umbrella tumbled over and struck him over the head. Ouch!
Groaning in a voice he didn’t recognise, he clambered back up, and looked wearily around his own home. The house was a present from his father when he’d turned eighteen, which outdone the Porsche for his seventeenth. Normally, it was his own trendy bachelor pad: a paradise of the latest styles and the shiniest gadgets. Now, it all looked big and intimidating, and he felt as uneasy as he had done last night – or rather, in my dream, he corrected himself. His already huge wall-mounted plasma TV looked like it was the size of his driveway, standing in pride of place in a lounge bigger than a school hall, scattered with expensive furniture ten times the size any of it should be.
He turned to look at his kitchen – and froze. The side of his steel-finish oven, looming like a monolith over the kitchen, showed a cat in its reflection.
“Puzzle?” Tom said in a high-pitched squeak.
Tom looked behind him, expecting to see his pet cat Puzzle standing on the doormat, cat flap swinging behind her. But she wasn’t there. And yet the cat’s reflection remained in the oven. Tom gulped as an impossible, ridiculous truth wrapped itself around him, more suffocating than his duvet had been.
He walked forward. So did the reflection. He walked right up to the oven’s shiny surface. A black cat with a white muzzle and chest gaped back at him with lime-green eyes.
“H-Hello?” Tom ventured. As he spoke, the reflection’s mouth opened in a small meow, revealing sharp teeth. He raised his arm, seeing his own black fur and paw as clear as day, and pressed it against the steel, touching the reflection’s own paw.
“I…I don’t…no…” he shuddered, “I’m a cat! I’M…A CAT!”
He bashed his head against the metal, the noise pounding in his ears.
“Wake up!” he growled, “This is a dream! You’ve got work to do! Wake up!”
“Woah! Take it easy, kit!” said a voice, “You were almost cleaved open by the BigMetalSnake last night. I didn’t save you just to have you beat yourself up.”
Tom spun around, vision swaying. Panic welled up inside him. He could feel the fur on his back stand on end – then flatten again when he saw Puzzle standing there in front of the door. Instantly Tom felt a comforting calm trickle through him at the sight of his pet.
Puzzle had stripes just like a tiger; the specialist seller had told him the official name for the breed was Toyger. He warmly recalled their first meeting in the pet store. Tom had fallen love with her straight away. Even she seemed to like him, and she had curled her tail into a question-mark shape in greeting. With that, Tom named her Puzzle, and she’d become the perfect companion around the house that kept him from feeling lonely – when she was around, of course. She was a cat, and she behaved as all cats did, but even so she spent a lot of time out and about, and when she came back it wasn’t too out of the ordinary to see her injured one way or the other. Just what did she get up to?
“Puzzle?” Tom said slowly, “You’re…you’re talking. Can you understand me?”
Puzzle rolled her eyes and padded into the kitchen. Up close, Tom could see just how much bigger she was than him. Lean muscles rippled under her gleaming fur as she moved.
“Understand you?” she said, “Listen kit, you were in the middle of Smoky territory, knocked out, splayed across those dangerous metal bars that the BigMetalSnakes speed along, with one charging towards you. That’s pretty hard to understand.”
“A BigMetalSnake?” Tom repeated, wondering what she could possibly mean, “Do…do you mean a train? Was I nearly ran over by a train?”
“A train? If that’s what you call it, yes,” said Puzzle, brushing past him and heading to her feeding bowls.
Tom let out a long shuddering breath. So that was what those blinding lights were that he’d seen after being struck over the head. He hadn’t imagined any of it…it had been real. That tall man must have knocked him out, and the sound of all those cats surely had something to do with this. He winced. Will you listen to yourself, Verbrisser? This is useless! Trying to make sense of something that doesn’t – can’t – make sense! When will this nightmare end? He took another breath, calming himself. No point panicking. Got to search for clues, answers.
“You rescued me?” Tom turned to face Puzzle, whose muzzle was buried deep in her bowl. He couldn’t believe he was talking to her. He’d talked to her before, obviously, but just the idle chit-chat anyone gives a pet. He never expected to have an actual conversation with her. The feeling was bizarre…though not completely unpleasant.
“Yep,” she said between mouthfuls of dry pellets, “I was patrolling our borders when I smelled something strange: you. I saw you just in time, and grabbed you and brought you here. You looked pretty beat up. Did Smoky Clan do that to you?”
“Smoky who?” Tom frowned, wondering why on Earth his pet cat’s territory stretched all the way to the railway.
Puzzle purred with laughter; “What?” she turned to face him, “You don’t know what a Clan is? Every cat around here belongs in one. Hmmm. Perhaps they do things differently beyond our borders. Speaking of which, you need to get back to where you belong.”
Tom didn’t reply. Puzzle went on.
“I couldn’t let a cat die, stranger or not, but now you’re okay, you need to leave my territory. Not just for your safety, but mine. My pet doesn’t like company, and he seems to just about tolerate mine.”
It took Tom a while before he realised she was talking about him, and he felt a pang of guilt. He really loved Puzzle, but he’d been so busy lately that he’d barely had time for himself, let alone her.
“Who knows what he’ll do if he finds you here, but I don’t think he’ll take it too well,” she said, looking around fearfully, “Especially as you slept in his sleeping nest. He didn’t come back last night; he does that now and then. He could be home any – woah, hang on! How…how do you know my name?”
“Puzzle…it’s me,” Tom said carefully, “It’s Tom, your own – I mean, pet.”
“I’ve been turned into a cat,” he added, hardly believing himself, “I can’t remember much of what happened before I was knocked out. One minute I was following these signs into the Old Dairy, the next thing I know…I’m in my bed, looking like this.”
Puzzle said nothing, only stared at him with her piercing golden eyes. He’d always liked Puzzle’s eyes, but never had he seen them so full of thought and meaning. It unnerved him.
“I…I can prove it,” Tom went on quickly, “I know your name; I know your favourite sleeping spot is that rug in the box room; you’ve hated it when the post arrives ever since you slipped and fell on a letter that one time you came through the cat flap –”
“I knew it.”
Tom let out a sigh of relief. “You’ve got to help me, Puzzle,” he pleaded, “I don’t know what’s happening to me – if this really is real, I need to turn b–”
Puzzle leapt and struck him to the cold kitchen tiles, pinning him down with strong paws.
“Ah!” Tom squeaked, “Puzzle, what’re you –?”
“I could smell my pet’s scent on you when I found you,” Puzzle growled in his ear, “I was suspicious then: you reeked of Smoky Clan too. And – what a surprise! – he didn’t return to the nest last night. Coincidence, kit? I think not…”
“You’re right, it isn’t a coincidence, Puzzle, because – OW!” Tom yelped as Puzzle dug her claws into his stomach. He wriggled free, and scrambled to his four feet.
“Puzzle, come on, it’s me!” he begged between hard breaths, “Tom did return home last night – you’re looking at him. I mean…why else do you think I headed for the bedr – I mean, sleeping nest as soon as I arrived? How could I have known where it was?”
Puzzles eyes narrowed.
“You did seem to know your way around very well…” she said slowly, “Even more amazing as you were barely conscious.”
Tom said nothing, for fear she may lunge at him again if anything else. How did she get so strong? True, he was half her size now, but still, Puzzle was a pampered house cat…wasn’t she?
“Maybe you are Tom,” she said carefully, “And maybe you aren’t…”
Tom opened his mouth to protest, but Puzzle raised a paw.
“I’ll have to think this over, kit, think of a way to prove if you are who you say you are. Here’s one idea.”
She turned, and opened a nearby cupboard. Balancing on her hind legs, she rummaged inside, and pulled out a box, the contents spilling across the floor.
“Hey!” Tom yelled, “That muesli’s expensive, you know!”
Puzzle ignored him. “Don’t touch this,” she ordered, indicating the mass of oats and chunks of fruit rolled across the tiles with her tail, “It’s a test.”
Tom blinked in bewilderment, but nodded.
“I’ll be back at sundown,” she said, padding towards the cat flap, “Stay in the house, if you know what’s good for you: other cats around here will be less understanding than me.”
“Where – where are you going?” Tom stammered.
“Things to do, places to see; I’m a busy cat,” she said, then added smarmily, “If you really are Tom, you should know all about that, right?”
“But…” Tom searched for an excuse to make her stay, “I’m hungry. What will I eat?”
Puzzle’s lip curled in amusement; “You’re a cat, aren’t you? There’s a garden with mice out back – eat what you find. But don’t you dare touch my food,” she growled, nodding at her food bowls and the pouches of food stacked next to them, “That’s my food, and this is my territory. Count yourself lucky that I’m letting you hunt at all.”
And with that, she pushed her way through the cat flap, and was gone.
Tom sighed. Great. The phrase ‘stranger in your own home’ was being taken to a whole new level here. His tiny cat-form made his house cathedral-like in size, and equally as foreboding. Even his own pet cat was ordering him around – he couldn’t even eat the cat food, which he’d paid for! That stuff was pretty pricey, too – only the best for his dear Puzzle. Well, just you wait, missy, he grinned inwardly, the second I get back to being a human (or wake up, whichever came first) you’re going right on to a cheapo budget brand. It served her right for being so ungrateful. ‘My territory’…how dare she!
His stomach rumbled. He literally couldn’t remember when he last ate: that blow to the head had left his memory patchy. Well, he wouldn’t want to eat stinking cat food anyway, and he definitely wasn’t going to hunt (and what did she mean, saying there were mice in the garden? He paid a top gardener to keep it in perfect shape)! No, he may look like a cat – indeed, he may actually be a cat – but he was still human. Still Tom Verbrisser. He would eat like he always did.
He looked at the oven. The monstrous metal behemoth towered over him. Cooking something was a no-no in this form. Shame: he had a fine steak rump in the fridge; now it would spoil. He gazed longingly at the muesli splayed around his feet, but resisted. Maybe that was the test Puzzle had in mind, and besides, she scared him slightly.
He looked at his paws. The simplest thing he could make that could count as a proper meal was a sandwich. He looked up at the bread bin, perched high next to the toaster, and began calculating a route to it: jump on the chair, then the table, onto the oven, over the sink…and getting some slices of ham and some pre-grated cheese out of the fridge would be a doddle.
Yes, this could work, he thought as he instinctively bunched onto his hind legs, ready to leap onto the chair: perhaps being a cat wouldn’t be so bad.
He jumped, and smashed his head against the side of the chair.