From Ivan the Purrable and the Twelve Dancing Princesses.
Chapter 1. Youngest Son
“Crap. I do not have time for this,” Stavros George “Steve” Zolnerovich grumbled, hitting the ignore button on his phone. His sister really needed to quit with the joke texts pretending to be Ivan the cat. That or she was reminding him to feed Ivan, since she was at some kind of academic thing in Chicago. She needs a life, seriously needs a life. Steve picked up the insulated pizza carrier and double checked the address against the one on the screen at the delivery window. They matched, both of them, and he risked a peek into the big insulated carrier. Yup, five extra-large pizzas. He pushed the check-out pad with his thumb. It registered, he heard a chime, and the door opened, letting him out and cold air in. Steve hurried to his car, hugging the pizza boxes a little.
He so needed to get the car’s heater fan fixed like a month ago. He knew better than to ask his folks for money. They were tied up in knots trying to sort out his Zolnerovich grandparents’ estate and get them into assisted living. Steve started the engine, fingers crossed. The third-hand wagon’s engine caught on the first try and he fist-bumped the dashboard, then backed out of his slot at Padre’s Pizza Palace and headed north to his first stop. His father refused to buy him a new car, and his brother and sister wouldn’t help, either. “You’ll break it, Georgie,” Peter had said. Steve hated the old nickname, hated his older brother’s refusal. You’ve got a lot of deployment and combat pay, Pete, why won’t you at least help me with a loan? He could kind of understand Catherine’s not helping, because she made like diddly-squat as a folk-lore specialist and free-lance Slavic language translator. Not that many Russian and Ukrainian speakers in the Denver area needed her. Well, she could have majored in something useful, but nooooo, hyphenated studies and fairy tales it was.
Hooonk! Crunch! Steve stood on the brakes, then steered hard right into the gap between two other cars as the fool in front of him discovered why you don’t tailgate in November in Colorado after a snowstorm. Steve gave the wrecked cars a one-finger salute without removing his hands from the wheel or his eyes from the road. They didn’t see it, of course, but it was the thought that counted. Two more lights and his phone’s GPS chirped. “Turn right.” Steve did as ordered, passed four houses and an empty lot. “Turn right. One hundred meters.”
Damn. Big house, small tip. Expensive cars spilled out of the driveway from the almost-mansion that matched the address on the first delivery. Steve winced a little as he totaled up the value of the eight vehicles. The Jaguar alone cost more than he made in a year, and that was the cheap, no frills model. Was it a bankers’ meeting? Nah, probably university administrators meeting to discuss tuition raises. Steve parked well clear of the Mercedes at the end of the row, got the big pizza envelope out of the passenger seat, and trudged up to the door. At least they’d cleared the snow and tossed out grit so he wouldn’t fall. Probably lawyers. No one wants to be sued. He rang the bell.
“Great timing!” The lean kid who answered the door said, smiling at Steve.
“Three extra large, sir.” Steve opened the envelope and pulled out the first box, warning, “They’re really hot, so you might want to hold the edges.”
“Thanks. Will do. Here. It’s all yours.” The kind handed over two twenties.
“Thank you, sir. Let’s see, this is the vegen, this one’s vegetarian, and this is the Greek special.”
The teenager nodded and wrinkled his nose. “Uncle Ted and his ethnic kicks. Got ‘em.”
Steve trudged back to his car. Five buck tip on the order. Oh well. That had to be the first Greek special he’d delivered in months. Who in their right mind ordered pizza with Feta cheese, black olives, hamburger, and tatziki? Even his mom’s folks would balk at that one. Uncle George ate a lot of funky Greek things, but no, just no.
After the next delivery Steve decided that the new moon was making people strange. Someone had actually ordered Padre’s Special with ghost pepper dipping sauce. It came with a disclaimer form that the buyer had to sign and send back. Padre’s accepted no liability for burned tongues and complaints that the pizza and the sauce were too hot. I bet there was a dare involved. And alcohol, lots of alcohol. Steve’s phone chirped four more times and he ignored all of them.
He made his last delivery at ten thirty that night, turned in the money, and stopped off at a gas station to put ten dollars worth in his car, then drove to near Golden. Catherine should have hired a house-sitter to feed Ivan and check on the house. I have things to do and gas costs money. The clouds from the snowstorm had blown out and the stars seemed really close to the ground, even with all the light pollution. Steve turned on the car CD player and Seattle alternative filled the car, followed by hip-hop. His dad hated hip-hop, which was why Steve listened to it. Some heat from the engine seeped into the wagon and Steve decided that he could live without a heater for another few weeks. If he could get through Thanksgiving, he’d have enough in tips to see about getting the thing fixed. A shooting star lit the sky, streaking from behind him straight toward the southern horizon, scattering red and green sparks. Green? That’s different. That’s what, copper? Yeah. Huh. Cool. Then darkness returned, as dark as it ever got with the sprawl of the Front Range cities lighting the world to the east.
Why did Catherine and his parents not sell the place? It was out in the middle of nowhere, or had been. His great-grandparents had bought the land back in the 1960s, or was it ‘70s? Anyway, before people actually wanted to live in the Denver area, and now their old house sat on a gold mine. His family would be really, really rich if they’d subdivide the place and build houses, or rent the land out to someone besides the guy with the horses and cows. Instead they were thinking about getting some kind of open-space easement so no one could build on it. That is so stupid. I wouldn’t have to work two jobs to pay for school if they’d sell the place. It’s not as if they need that much land. Maybe there’s some kind of strange thing in great-grandma’s will about they have to keep it until her old cat dies. That would be my family. They put the we in weird.
Steve turned off onto the road that led to the house. He stopped at the heavy pipe-stem gate and leaned way out the open window, entering the code to let himself in. Each of the kids had a separate code, although Steve bet that Pete had forgotten his. The gate opened, Steve drove in, and pulled straight to the garage. He didn’t mess with letting the gate close behind him while he blocked the driveway, then going on. No one would come in this time of night. And besides, there were easier ways to trespass, like jumping the fence.
He let the engine run a bit before he got out in order to warm the car, then went to the front door and stopped, keys in hand. Blaat blaat blaat came from inside, and Steve hesitated. That was the burglar alarm going off inside. The fire alarm honked. “Aw crap, I bet that damn cat set it off.” Ivan probably knocked something off the counter in the kitchen and it triggered the sound detectors. Catherine was supposed to have turned those off while she was gone. Steve unlocked it the front door. Once inside he typed the cut off into the keypad and the sound stopped. “Stupid cat.”
He hadn’t gone four steps when he heard breaking glass, lots of it. “What the fu—?” Steve ran toward the sound.
“Mrow! Mraaaaw!” That sounded like a pissed off cat. Steve skidded on the kitchen tile and saw shattered glass and felt cold air pouring in from the door to the back deck.
“Stop!” A black shape loomed up in front of him. “Who?”
“Ow, my head.”
Steve blinked and saw stars. Not hit-on-the-head stars, but real stars. They didn’t match the night sky. And they were a sickly white green, like the moss on a rotting log. The air was warm and smelled odd, a bit like garlic. “Huh” He rubbed his head. “What hit me?”
“Stupidity comes to mind.” Steve looked to the sound of the voice. It came from a black cat with blue eyes. It was Ivan, but a very big Ivan, now as large as a good-sized dog, at least going by how far Steve had to look up to see him. The cat continued in very formal English, “You did not get my messages, I take it.”
The cat sighed and licked one paw. “Well, you’d better look in the future. If there is a future.”
I’ve been hit on the head and I’m hallucinating. Cat’s don’t talk, they don’t text, and I’m imagining someplace that doesn’t exist. I’m just going to close my eyes, and it will all go away. He was already lying down. Steve tried to go back to sleep.
“Ow!” Very sharp claws dug into the back of his hand. “Stop that!”
“Read your messages and start thinking, boy. This is not a bad dream. It is a nightmare. We’re in the Sweeper’s world.”
(C) 2016 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved