I donít know whether itís the changing of the seasons or something I did to her, but Patches has been acting very mysteriously.

Perhaps its October, being the month of Halloween and all. Sheís perhaps starting to feel the need to be a Halloween Cat. Her tortoise-shell calico (all colors but white) has shades resembling pumpkin, you know.

Sheís been suspiciously absent the last week or so. In fact, when I first realized I hadnít seen her in a day or two, I panicked. Patches has never since the day she moved here eight or nine years ago, been out of the house. Sheís strictly a housecat. There was one time she slipped into the attic and I searched and searched until I finally heard her mewling and let her out, but thatís her only foray beyond the rooms inside.

When I first realized I had not seen her for awhile, you see, the weeks before had been a period of permanent attachment. She goes through those phases, too. As long as I am standing up, everything is fine. But the minute I sit down or lie down zzzzoooooommmm! Thereís Patches, beseeching either an ear rubbing, chin scratching or seeking to perch precariously on my belly. Or all of the above. For weeks, I felt like I had a calico growth.

So when she was absent, I started looking. I searched all her usual hiding spots: The piddling room, between my tackle bag and the wall. Nope. Up at the top of the stairs, where my girlfriend put a little pet bed for her to lounge around in the sun from the window up there, but no, not there. Behind the loveseat. Uh-uh. On the various windowsills, hidden behind curtains, blinds or shades. No Patches. I checked to make sure I hadnít left my sock drawer open. Nope, Patches is not sleeping in my sock drawer. She was, once, and it was half-dark and I was half-awake getting ready for work in the morning, and when I reached in to grab a pair of socks I grabbed a Patches butt instead and got bloodied for my mistake.

Sheís so tiny, she can hide easily. She really is a little cat, lithe and long-legged. Not an ounce of fat on her, wiry as a snake and slippery as an eel. She can hide in the tightest places. I searched under the bed, under the sofa, under the broom, magazines on my coffee table and books on the bookshelf. Okay, maybe sheís not that tiny, but she is remarkably adept and hiding when she doesnít want to be seen.

I even checked in the bathroom Iím remodeling, but she wasnít in there. I noticed the eight-inch drain pipe in the floor, and peeked into it, just to make sure she hadnít tried to crawl in there chasing a dust bunny or something. I immediately felt foolish, then corrected myself: Thereís no telling, with Patches.

I got my flashlight and checked in the "junk room," i.e., that room where Iíve moved everything from the rest of the house while renovations have progressed, insofar as the word can be used to describe the snailís pace at which Iím accomplishing anything. Thereís so much stuff in there itís hard to search it all, but I did my best.

"Patches," I said, sweetly. "Come out and see me."

No reply, not even a little meow. I remembered belatedly that Patches is terrified of flashlights so I hastily turned it off.

"Paaaaaattcccccchhheeeeessssss," I cooed, as sugary-sweet as I could. "Whereís my baby, hmmmm?"

Not a peep. I put some dry food into her bowl, purposely making it rattle noisily as it poured. This usually sends her running to the bowl. But not a sound, not a sign of her.

At this point Iím really getting worried that she somehow escaped into the yard. I go look around outside near the house, but thereís no Patches. Itís dark and I canít search very far. Iím getting a sinking feeling in my stomach, but I convince myself that Iíve been careful for all these years about closing doors and making sure she doesnít get out. She never even tries to get out, most sheíll do is peek around the corner of an open door curiously and flee if she even notices me noticing her. Nobodyís been to the house all week, so nobody else could have left an open door.

I go inside and check the clothes closets. Maybe she sneaked in there while I was getting out my dayís wardrobe? Nope, no Patches. I check the other closet, a miscellaneous one for anything I canít find a proper place for. No cat to be found.

I check the refrigerator. Hey, stranger things have happened. Just check the news. I check the washer and the dryer, the bathroom cabinets and the toilet tank. Okay, I went overboard, but worry makes you crazy.

It was nearly midnight by then, and I was exhausted and depressed. I had to get up and go to work in the morning so I reluctantly called off the search and lay down on the sofa, miserable.

Eventually I dozed off, and woke up sometime in the early morning hours. The first thing that popped in my mind was Patches, and I decided I just had to go search again, maybe I hadnít looked everywhere, like in the desk drawers and all my fly rod cases.

I turned over to roll off the sofa, opened my eyes, and there, all curled up in the most contented and unknowing calico ball you ever saw, was Patches, nuzzled up against my side.

I sighed. I wasnít angry. I wasnít even relieved. I was just, kinda like you know, "Well, there you go." Sorta numb resignation, I guess.

"Thanks for dropping in," I whispered. She opened a yellow eye I could barely see in the dim light, and blinked at me. She lifted her head, yawned widely, and tucked her head back down over her back legs and closed her eyes.

"Pathetic," I whispered, but I wasnít referring to the cat. "Just plain pathetic."