NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge

For some reason, I signed up for a short story challenge. I didn’t have a lot of time and energy to work on it, but I did end up managing to finish something! It’s far from a final draft though. The word limit was 2500 words.
My prompts: genre: fantasy, subject – pets, character – translator

What Bootsy Knew

You don’t expect drinks after work to change your life, do you? Sara was late, probably fixing her makeup in case Brad showed up, and the woman next to me was chatty. She had the brightest blue eyes, and I found myself telling her about the cat I’d adopted and hoping I wasn’t babbling too much.

“Oh, I love cats. Here, you might need this.”

I stared at the business card: ANNABELLE TALBOT, PET TRANSLATOR. “I’ve never met a pet translator before. So you speak Cat and Dog and, I don’t know, Fish?” 

“Freshwater and saltwater fish have different languages, actually.” 

I immediately felt like a jerk. “Wow. Sorry, that was rude. It’s just new to me.”

“I’m used to skepticism. Animals know more than we give them credit for. Call me when you’re ready to know what Bootsy is trying to tell you.”

Had I told her my cat’s name? I looked back up at her, but she was gone.

***

Bootsy was not the name I would have chosen. She was black with white boots, but I would have gone with something more dignified, like Lady Arabella Fuzzybritches or Princess Meowington. But it said BOOTSY on her collar above a disconnected phone number. I took her to the vet to check for a microchip and posted on local lost pet sites, but no one claimed her, so she was my Bootsy. We communicated pretty well, I thought. She told me loudly when she could see the bottom of her food bowl and made it clear that switching to the cheaper litter was unacceptable.

She did sometimes stare at nothing, or run around at two in the morning, but that was just a cat thing. Right? “Hey, Bootsy, what are you looking at?”

She looked back at me. She’d pawed open my closet door again and was having a good stare at the back wall. I assumed she was listening to water in the pipes or something, but her gold eyes stayed fixed on mine. “Meow.”

“Yeah? Are you trying to tell me something? Do we need a pet translator?”

Bootsy turned back to the wall.

Maybe I could use Annabelle’s help. I rolled my eyes at myself. I was such a sucker for pretty blue eyes.

The next day, there were thirteen kitty crunchies lined up outside the closet. I felt a prickle of anxiety. “Bootsy, are you trying to freak me out?”

“Meow.”

“Oh, I set that box in front of the closet, so you can’t get in? Sorry, buddy.” I moved the box and opened the door. She placed one paw on my leg and looked into my eyes before heading in to stare at the wall. I dug out the business card.

I changed clothes three times before the appointment. I felt like I’d had too much coffee. I definitely talked too fast greeting Annabelle at the door. She and Bootsy chatted for long enough that I started to get bored. Bootsy abruptly walked toward the bedroom with her tail crooked, and looked back at Annabelle, obviously wanting her to follow. “She wants to show me something,” Annabelle said. “Is it okay to go in here?”

“Sure.” I’d tidied up before the appointment. Annabelle preferred to meet her clients where they felt safe, rather than in an office. When I remembered cramming a yowling Bootsy into the carrier to go to the vet, I thought that made sense. If anything about pet translating made sense.

Bootsy batted open the closet door and looked back at Annabelle. I thought her expression said, “Thank Bast you’re here; I’ve been trying to tell this lady but she’s dumb as a scratching post,” but according to Annabelle, she’d only said, “It’s in here.”

Bootsy did her usual wall-staring. “Cats can sense portals to other worlds or between dimensions. It seems you have one back here. Bootsy can hear someone asking for your help.”

“My help? They need their taxes done?” Had I invited a total loon into my house? I’d been willing to believe she could help me with my cat’s weird behavior, kind of like a specialist vet, but now I wondered if I was going to be on a hidden-camera YouTube show, or be ax-murdered or something.

She smiled. “No, they need your other gifts.”

I took a step back, but she grabbed my hand and pulled us into the closet. She pressed our palms to the wall as Bootsy reached up with her paws, and everything went white.

***

“Is this Narnia?” I asked, looking around at the forest surrounding us.

“Joking is a good sign. You handled the journey much better than most humans.”

“Humans? Aren’t you—”

“Not exactly. Bootsy says we should go this way.”

There was simply too much to process, so I followed. “It seems like a good time for some exposition. We did just go through my closet into a forest, and you said you aren’t exactly human.”

“You’d call me an elf or a fairy. Though we can’t fly. Well, some of us can fly using magic, but we don’t have wings. I personally can’t fly. Elf might be closest. I was born here, but I never fit in. I could communicate with animals better than with my own kind, and my pet celadon led me to a portal. I felt at home in the human world.”

“Celadon?”

“It’s a greenish ball of light, but otherwise very much like a dog. Celie couldn’t pass through the portal. Leaving it behind was my only regret. Oh!”

We had come to a clearing, but it felt like I hit a wall. I stood up from where I had fallen and reached out. There was something there, a curved wall made of stone. Light pooled around my hand where it made contact. Bootsy sat staring. “She can see it, can’t she?”

“Yes. She says it’s a tower. The cries for help are coming from the top.” I looked up but saw only sky, and I could hear only the wind blowing in the leaves.

“The voice is telling Bootsy that the key to the tower is in the old well. Oh, dear.” 

“I’m guessing the old well is not a happy place?”

“Well, it’s deep. Very deep. And dark.” She shuddered.
The old well was guarded by something big. It looked like a cross between a fairy tale troll and a rhinoceros. I patted my pockets. No weapons for fighting rhino-trolls. My phone didn’t even get a signal here. I was useless. It growled, rumbling the earth. “No! Bootsy, what are you doing?”

Bootsy strolled up to the guardian, who immediately dropped to a crouch and began cooing. She wound around its legs and looked up adoringly. It began to scratch her ears and she purred. Annabelle grabbed my hand and we walked quietly around to the other side of the well. Bootsy was rubbing up against its legs and flopping over for belly rubs, leading it farther from the well. “Hop in the bucket and I’ll lower you,” whispered Annabelle.

It didn’t occur to me to suggest she go down into the dank blackness until I was so deep I could barely make out a light at the top. How was I supposed to find a key down here? The bucket hit the bottom with a splashy thunk and I climbed out, finding my answer. The key was hovering in a glowing bubble in a niche cut into the side of the well. I held my breath as I reached for it, but it seemed the rhino-troll was sufficient protection, and nothing horrible happened as my fingers closed around the cool metal. It was heavier than it looked. I scrambled back into the bucket and tugged the rope to be brought up.

Bootsy was still working her kitty magic. Annabelle and I crept back into the woods and Bootsy followed, the rhino-troll waving at her happily. “Bootsy says he’s very nice, but he had to take this job to feed his family. He doesn’t like the new queen at all. New queen? Oh dear. I think I know who’s calling for help from the tower.”

“The old queen?”

“Yes. And if we get involved more than we already are, the guardian of the key will look like a pussycat next to what will come for us next. If you want to go back—”

“No, my cat brought me here. And there’s nothing but taxes waiting for me at home. If I can help, I’ll stay.”

Her eyes sparkled. “Good. I think we’ll need you.” She grabbed my hand and the three of us ran back to the clearing.

***

“How do we find the keyhole?” I asked. Annabelle held up the key and blew on it. A spot on the wall glowed. I laughed. “I had to go a hundred feet down a smelly old well. You got the easy part.”

As the key went into the lock, the tower appeared. It was probably as tall as the well was deep. What was with these people and not staying on the surface? We climbed around and around and around. My legs were aching and I was so dizzy I almost fell over onto the landing when we finally reached the top. Annabelle steadied me. “If there’s another rhino-troll up here, I’m not going to be up to much,” I mumbled.

“Rhino-troll! Oh, that’s brilliant!” She laughed, far too loudly for a secret mission, I thought. “No, Bootsy says they were counting on no one getting into the tower in the first place.”

Bootsy pawed the door open. A very tall woman in breeches and a blousy shirt like the ones you see in pirate movies was brandishing a candleholder at us. “Oh, you aren’t her people. Who are you?”

Bootsy meowed at the same time Annabelle said, “Didn’t you call us?” A green glow drifted from behind the door. “Celie!” It was a green ball of light, but I could have sworn it wagged its tail. 

“You know it?” the woman asked. “Who are you?”

“Oh, my queen, I’ve been gone for many years, but I was Annabelle of the Scribes. Celie was my companion until I found my way to the human world, and it called through the portal to Bootsy the cat, who brought us here. Let’s get you out of here.”

The stairs were not more pleasant on the way down. “One of my handmaidens plotted with my consort to seize power. They locked me up in here. My magic doesn’t work inside this tower, so I couldn’t get out.” She stood blinking in the bright sunlight for a moment. “Oh, it’s so good to be free. And to talk again! I talked to the celadon, but of course that’s not the same since it couldn’t answer.”

“It says it was pleased to bring you comfort, my queen.”

“What?”

“I have always been able to communicate with other creatures. It’s part of why I left. It was such an odd gift, I felt I had to hide it here.”

“But not in the human world? I haven’t been there in a thousand years, but surely they aren’t that open-minded.”

As Annabelle explained about pet translation, I noticed the trees were thinning out and the ground beneath us had become a packed-dirt path. It soon gave way to cobbles, and then a castle came into view.

“I hate to interrupt, but how will you get rid of the new queen? Should we have weapons or something?” I had binge-watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy the previous weekend, and I was picturing bows and arrows or maybe a sword.

The queen almost bent double laughing. “Oh, my dear human. You are a treasure. No, you’ve done enough by freeing me. With my magic unfettered, I can handle this myself. They only trapped me because they caught me unawares. With my pants down, as it were,” she added sheepishly.

I must have looked disappointed because she patted my arm. “If you stay here with us, I’ll give you archery lessons myself.” Had she read my mind?

The queen’s magic was something to see. Swirling colors surrounded the castle, and I heard screaming. She beamed. “Let’s go in and tell them to prepare a banquet!”

***

There were one or two other things to be taken care of first. The usurpers, already squabbling over who was at fault for the queen’s escape, were carried off to have an unpleasant incarceration in the tower together. The rest of the castle inhabitants re-swore their fealty to the queen. Fortunately, it was a group swearing, or it would have taken hours. 

Annabelle and I sat on either side of the queen as honored guests. Bootsy had a seat next to me. The banquet was joyful and became more raucous as toast after toast was made with cups of mead. Musicians played and someone began to sing in a beautiful voice the story of our rescue of the queen. The singer seemed stymied by a rhyme for “Bootsy.”

When the queen stood, the hall fell silent. “Annabelle of the Scribes, this noble cat, and this brave human have brought us all together today. It is my great honor to name Annabelle of the Scribes the queen’s own translator, if she will come live among us again. And she will form her own house, the Translators, for those who speak with other creatures, and they will have the highest status and respect.” Annabelle bowed her head in acceptance. “Bootsy, will you be the castle mouser?” She looked at Annabelle, who nodded. “I don’t know yet what position to give you, my dear human, but I do believe you belong here, if you’re willing to stay and find out.”

I thought of my apartment, my pleasant but distant coworkers, the approaching tax season. Could anything in the human world compete with what I’d seen today? I bowed to the queen. “I’m honored to stay.”

Later that night, I asked Annabelle, “Did Bootsy just pick me for geography? Do I really belong here, or did I just happen to rent an apartment with a portal in the closet?”

She held my hand. “I haven’t been able to open a portal back myself. And Bootsy couldn’t go back alone. It took the three of us, together, to open the portal. You belong here. You must have some magic. We’ll figure out what it is, I promise. Now I have to ask you something. I must go visit my family, the one I abandoned many years ago. Will you come with me? I need to travel there before word reaches the village about the new Translators and my position here. They need to hear it from me, but I can’t face them alone.”

“Can Bootsy come?”

“Like I would go anywhere without you both. The rest of our adventures will be together.”