I was annoyed that it took me another week to come by again. My chief had instructed all of us to make a show of more-than-ordinary attendance, and between what was at stake, the generous overtime pay, and extra vacation days to gain, I let the crunch get to my head, for worse or worst. Still, as much as I had already chewed Danielle out by phone, I still had a lot in me after discovering the number of buttons had tripled.
With legs and arms crossed, I was sitting opposite of her, giving her a stern look. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but if I understand what I could find online, Frankie just went through about eight months’ worth of button training in less than one.”
“Six,” she muttered under her breath. I gave her a moment to chew on her sleeve — she was wearing her stim sweater again — and waited for her to continue. “Sorry. Frankie is still healthy, he had a check-up just the other day and they didn’t notice anything weird, so I thought…”
I pinched the bridge of my nose. “That’s not the point, Danielle. I’ve asked for one thing and it was to be warned if anything happened. This is something, and I ended up having to look into it myself.”
“But it’s a good ‘something’!” she argued back. “He’s learning so quickly! What’s wrong with that?”
I tried to articulate a reply but ended up just sighing. This is why I don’t usually like to make magical favors for people that haven’t studied the art. Their attitude can be so very cavalier, all awe and wow with no deeper understanding of the risks involved.
“Sad,” Danielle said, her face hidden behind her sleeve. She pulled her sweater out her mouth. “Sad,” she repeated through sealed lips. We turned our heads to the other side of the room to find Frankie with his paw on a button. “Sad.” “Sad.”
“It’s, uh… his favorite word.” Danielle gulped. “Frankie’s been using it almost non-stop since he learned it.”
I got off my chair and approached the poor kitty, offering him my hand. He sniffed it then half-heartedly rubbed himself against it. I started scritching the back of his neck.
Right. Amidst the argument, I had to remember that all of this was for him. Teaching him to talk was the intent and hope, that it was going too fast was a self-sabotaging complaint to have in that regard. “Sorry, little one. I’ll stop bugging your mama.” Idly petting him on the back, I turned to Danielle again. “I’ll still run a diagnosis, just to make sure everything’s alright. Even if it’s been for the better so far, I’d rather be prepared for the unexpected.”
She nodded. “Of course! Take your time.”
I shifted from crouching to sitting to give my knees some rest. As usual, I took out my instrument and started whistling. The Leitmotiv of detection was a very simple one, long ago memorized; all one had to do was to play each hole bottom to top twice. The six note melody brought in mind imagery of my workplace, where its use was frequent. It didn’t help that computers borrowed it in skeuomorphic derivation.
A small cloud of magic coalesced above the kitty. As it shrank and grew dense, rain started falling down and coating him, the pitter patter of the droplets joining the melodic soundscape. From experience, being on the receiving end of this spell didn’t feel wet as you would expect, but instead like a patchy draft, like if cold ash swept into your face. Understandably, the poor cat didn’t seem too thrilled and coiled back a bit. Still, thanks to vigorous chin scritches and reassurances, he let the magic do its thing without too much complaining.
The puddle that formed at his feet rose back into the cloud, then dissipated unceremoniously. Frankie wasn’t enchanted. Magically speaking… everything was normal. There was no leftover from last time, no remnant of magic, no sign of any new spell. What shook its body and rubbed its face in front of me was but a perfectly cromulent housecat.
“I… don’t understand,” I muttered, rubbing the back of my head. I’d had a couple theories. Maybe the spell hadn’t properly dispersed. Maybe ever musically tone-deaf Danielle had picked up an instrument and was casting some instantly-memorized version of the spell behind my back. Maybe — oh, maybe Frankie himself was the one with a musical gift, reinforcing the original enchantment with mewls. Those could all be thrown out the window now… though to be fair, some of them were pretty silly to begin with. “I mean, that’s good news, but I was supposed to detect something, right?”
Danielle shrugged, spreading her arms wide. “I don’t know, you’re the mage here.”
“The issue is now we’ve got a problem, but without a cause,” I explained. Well, problem was maybe not the right word. “We’ve got a kitty that’s learning way faster than should even be possible for a cat, and yet… nothing. No reason behind it. He’s just… that smart. Somehow.”
“Awww!” Danielle looked ecstatic. She came to join us on the ground and started petting her kitty. “You hear that Frankie baby? You’re a smart boy!”
Frankie responded by falling on his flank and letting the pets come his way.
It made sense for her to come to that conclusion. Just like it made sense for me to keep my doubts. Just because magic was no longer involved didn’t mean this couldn’t still be its ripple effects. My new theory was that the temporary magically induced intellect was lingering in a non-magical form, somehow. As much as from what I knew of psyche and magic that was utterly impossible, knowledge was conflicting with the reality in front of me. But maybe my magical predispositions were blinding me to the obvious, and if Occam and his razor had anything to say, it’s that there was merit to believing Frankie was simply just smart.
I spent a moment staring at the ceiling, contemplating. The parquet flooring creaked slightly when I moved my hands to use as a pillow. “So… ‘Sad’, huh?” I said, changing the conversation topic. “How did you teach him that one? Did he ask for it?”
“Nnnope. Just had a habit of saying ‘my poor baby’s feeling sad?’ whenever he laid down, and once I noticed he’d picked up on the word I went ‘Heck it’ and made him one.” Danielle gave a little sigh, twirling her finger in his fur. “Started using it immediately, so I guess he… you know, knew that meaning well.”
The kitty got up, walked a few steps away from us and sat back down. Petting time was over, it seemed.
“I’d make him buttons for other emotions, but until I catch him feeling them in the first place, I don’t really have the opportunity to teach them. Nor would he really have the use,” she added, dejected.
“Yeah…” I muttered. We shared a glance. “So how do you want to proceed?”
“I dunno. If you’re okay with what you found, move past that with reevaluated expectations?” she offered.
But I wasn’t okay with what I’d found. I didn’t like the idea of not keeping Frankie under constant surveillance. I’d heard — sat through literal lectures about! — the cases of magic going awry. And while even my work was much higher stakes in its usage, I just… needed to feel in control. This was my spell, and I felt much more directly responsible. I could trust my coworkers to maintain everything in my absence, but I had no one else to turn to in regards to this situation.
Evidently, I would never just ask Danielle to hand me her cat, and I didn’t want to thrust Frankie into a new habitat either. That didn’t leave me with a lot of options.