A Home for the Holidays
Dazed and confused, with pain exploding through its head, the kitten heard the creak of the car door opening and felt a blast of cold air. It cringed away from it. The big hand it had sought a caress from wrapped around its body. As much as it hurt, it tried to rub its head against that hand, still seeking a pat. Then it was flying.
Even as it sank into the snow bank and colder than cold surrounded it, it heard the familiar voice. It didn’t understand the words, but some part of him understood the intent. The car door slammed shut as the kitten tried to scramble to its feet, but its feet wouldn’t obey. Nothing worked right, and by the time it managed it the car was long gone.
It was dark, it was cold and the kitten was scared. The little cat huddled in the snow, hoping the car would come back, take it back to the lights, the warmth, and food, but the car didn’t return. Every time lights appeared it hoped, but the lights and the sound passed by, leaving it in the dark again.
The kitten hadn’t meant to be underfoot, all it had wanted was a pat, a stroke. Instead, pain had exploded through its head. Now it was alone, and it hurt.
It was so quiet except for the lights and the hiss of the tires,. Until the howling started. Instinctively it huddled into itself, tried to make itself smaller. The kitten crawled in search of someplace warmer and drier, and found a little space full of dead leaves beside a thick, downed limb. It was something like cuddling up, even if nothing cuddled back.
It didn’t understand alone, but it learned.
It was afraid of the road at first. It was tired, sick and in pain. But birds and mice were hard to catch when you were a kitten and only had instinct to guide you. Even worse when your mouth didn’t work quite right and your ears hurt. It was hungry, always hungry.
A bag was tossed from a car window. It smelled food.
It took a little while to get inside the bag, but heaven was inside – a bit of meat, of cheese, of fat. Not enough, but something.
There was road kill too, if it got to it before the bigger hunters.
It learned to be wary of the sky when an explosion of claws and feathers nearly caught it, barely seen in time to scramble for cover.
There were the big metal things at night that had lights and hissed, cars and trucks. They ticked as they cooled. If it reached them quickly enough, it would be warm for a time inside them. It was dangerous, though, as it had discovered. His greasy fur was testimony to that. Desperately it had clung to its perch, claws scrabbling until the big metal thing slowed to a momentary stop. Quickly it scrambled out, only to find it didn’t know where it was any longer. It learned to slink away at the sound of footsteps.
It was constantly dirty, but grooming itself was difficult. When it tried to lick his fur its tongue didn’t work right, and it hurt. What was on its fur tasted badly, too. It was uncomfortable, but it grew accustomed to the places where its coat was matted.
The fading odor of meat and cheese drew it back to the road once again. It was so hungry, so very hungry.
Desperate, smelling the aroma of food, it thrust its head into the bag, determined to get that one little piece of hamburger, the little bit of crust. Everything around it disappeared. The only thing that mattered was that smell and its empty stomach.
It pushed harder, deeper, determined to reach those delicious smells, oblivious to the sound of the car approaching.
At first, all Jesse saw was a bag blowing in the wind, except that it was blowing the wrong way… Then she spotted orange fur and a scrawny tail protruding as the back legs worked, trying to kick deeper, driving the bag before it. It was like watching a feeding shark, thrusting and thrusting.
She slammed the brakes on the car, and the back end slewed a little on the wet gray slush. Throwing the car into neutral and setting the parking brake she hopped out of Mitch’s BMW.
The kitten looked at her bemused as Jesse ripped the bag open to see what it was after, and then it spotted the small piece of hamburger. It pounced, or tried to, working its head this way and that to get its mouth around the bread, cheese and meat.
It was impossibly thin, it seemed, the slatted bones of its ribs clear against filthy, grease-matted fur.
Focused on the food, the little cat didn’t care when she picked it up and set it inside the car. All the kitten wanted to do was eat the little morsel of food. When it was done, it plopped onto its side to stare at her.
Jesse remembered what it felt like to be hungry.
As rich as her mother was, she always forgot Jesse, taking off for here or there, and she often forgot to make sure there was food in the house. Jesse had been an afterthought to her mother, as she’d been from the day she’d been conceived. Her mother had been more than honest about that. She’d wandered the big old white house alone plenty of days, going without until she met Cam, Ali, and Molly in grade school. She and Ali, a foster child, had spent a lot of time at Cam or Molly’s, and the four of them had picnicked a time or two in the white house when Jesse’s mother had been off gallivanting.
Looking at the slat-sided kitten, Jesse thought it was a good thing she was headed to the store to pick things up for Christmas Eve dinner. Cam had given her a list of things they needed that she’d forgotten to pick up herself. Something was always forgotten, and Mitch was helping Cam’s Noah put up the monster Christmas tree.
Christmas was a big deal for everybody else in the group. Until she’d met them, Jesse had counted herself lucky to find the weird little aluminum tinsel tree in the living room of the white house.
Her first Christmas with Molly’s family had been a revelation. Jesse still remembered the smell of pine, and the wistful way that Ali had looked at the tree. They all knew she’d been missing her mother and Jesse had almost envied her for that. Even after Jesse’s mother had died, she’d only missed what she’d wanted her mother to be.
Now the white house belonged to another family who had painted it and cleaned it until it almost didn’t look like the house where Jesse had grown up. It was the only thing Jesse’s mother had still owned and the sale of the house had paid for her funeral.
The kitten worked on eating the piece of hamburger as Jesse drove.
Curled up on the car seat warily, the little cat looked up at her with big gold eyes as she returned to the car from shopping.
Most of the groceries went into the trunk. All but one little can of cat food.
Opening it as she slid into the car, Jesse set it in the cup holder on the console between the seats. Mitch wouldn’t mind. Or at least he wouldn’t mind much.
The kitten goggled as it caught the scent of the food. Then it dove head first into the can. In seconds its little face was covered, and so was the console. Despite the funny angle of its jaw, it emptied the can and then licked the console diligently. By the time they reached the parking lot by Cam and Noah’s apartment there wasn’t a scrap left.
Jesse tucked the kitten inside her jacket, where it nestled sleepily and quite contentedly.
It was probably flea-ridden but she didn’t care, she wouldn’t leave it alone in the cold.
Careful of the cat, she carried the grocery bags in her other hand.
Jesse’s black leather boots were salt-stained as she kicked through the thin layer of slush before turning on to the sidewalk. Above her the sky was gray.
The streetlights were decorated with faux pine and slightly bedraggled red ribbon, while the windows of the few stores still open twinkled with little white or gold fairy lights. A string of those lights framed the marquee where Molly had once done plays. Now that Molly and Jack were married, they supported the little production house. When he wasn’t out of town on a shoot himself, Jack helped the folks he’d hired restore the theater to its glory.
Like so many small towns, Millersburg was fading in the face of the chain stores, but it was still a pretty little town.
She looked up at the windows to Cam and Noah’s apartment and the warm light up there. Little lights framed all the windows.
The bottom level of the building held the town’s main hair salon, the scent of perm solution drifting now and then up the stairs to the topmost floor and Cam’s apartment. Now the shop was closed for the holiday, but the door to the building was open.
Mitch and Noah, Cam’s husband, tall and blond, with a reputation of being a tough D.A., came to meet her and take the bags from her. They must have been watching for her from the window. It was still so strange for her to have someone care enough to do that. Mitch gave her a quick kiss before falling in behind her.
“What’s that you have there?” Noah asked, with a nod toward the opening of her jacket, as he let the apartment door close behind them.
The kitten had shifted and now peered out sleepily over the zipper.
“I found him, it, whatever, by the side of the road,” Jesse said, reaching inside her jacket to take the kitten out as they walked into the kitchen.
“Jesse, don’t set it there. That’s my prep table,” Cam said in exasperation as Jesse put the kitten down on the nearest table. “Too late.”
Noah rolled his eyes as he set the bags down on the counter. Smothering a grin, Mitch set his bags down, too. He knew her too well. Jesse grinned back.
“That has to be the ugliest cat in the world,” Jack said, as Molly gave him an elbow in the ribs.
Giving her a look, Jack said, “Well, it is. It’s filthy. What’s wrong with it? Its face looks funny. It has a sort of Elvis thing going on.”
Striking a pose, he did a creditable Elvis imitation. “Thank you, thank you very much.”
Coming over to the table, having given up that battle, Cam eyed the kitten and said, “Jack’s right, you know, Jesse. It does look funny.”
Her expression was tender though, as she held her fingers out to the little animal. Cam had a soft spot a mile wide. The kitten twisted its head this way and that until it could lick the offered fingers.
She already loved it. She looked at Mitch.
Knowing her well, Mitch just smiled and shook his head. “I think we have a cat.”
His hand was gentle as he stroked the little animal, though, at which the cat promptly plopped onto its side. It seemed to be its standard response to anything except food.
That kindness was one of the many reasons why she loved Mitch. It still amazed her that he loved her back. Loved her enough to marry her.
Molly found the cat food in one of the grocery bags and started laughing. “Did you get enough, Jesse?”
“He was starving,” Jesse said in her own defense, “you should have seen him go after the can of food I gave him in the car.”
Mitch looked mildly alarmed. “My car?”
“Oh shush,” she said. “He cleaned up after himself. He got every bite. You can’t even tell.”
“Poor little thing,” Molly said, opening another can.
The cat shot to his feet, all attention on the food.
It was the little dance he did, trying to get his mouth in a position to eat that broke Jesse’s heart. And everyone else’s. It also gave her its name.
Seeing that struggle worried her, though.
“No vets will be open on Christmas Eve,” she said, frowning. “I’ll take him in first thing.”
As usual, Noah had a better solution. Although they’d all grown up in town, Noah knew everyone who was anyone.
His phone in hand, he dialed. “Mark, I need a huge favor…”
The big veterinarian was examining the kitten when Ali, Aidan and the baby arrived. While the others went to greet the new arrivals, Jesse stayed with the cat, watching the vet worriedly. She leaned her head back against Mitch’s shoulder as his arm circled her waist.
“I heard we had a new member of the four,” Ali said, eyeing the kitten as she came in to give Jesse a hug. “Aoife, this is your aunt, Jesse.”
The fantastic four, or so they had called themselves. The smart ones, the social outcasts, the misfits – Jesse herself, Ali, Cam, and Molly. Ali was not only brilliant but beautiful, Molly was their drama queen – if not quite literally – while Cam was the sensible one of the bunch.
Aoife, her huge green-gold eyes a match to her mother Ali’s, had no use for the grown-ups, she was enchanted by the cat. She reached chubby hands for it. A new mommy, Ali grabbed a handful of damp paper towels to wipe the kitten down before her daughter could reach it.
In response, delighted at the attention, the cat flopped onto its side. Unafraid, the kitten rubbed his head against one flexing baby hand as Aoife took a handful of fur. The baby giggled.
“Well,” Mark Palmer, the veterinarian said as he stepped back, “He needs a bath, obviously, but other than that…” He took a breath. “His jaw is broken, but it’s healed now. There’s nothing we can do about that at this stage. He’s adapted to it, obviously. He’s undernourished, but that can be fixed. His ears are frostbitten, but they’ll heal, too. He doesn’t have fleas, at least, it’s too late in the season for them.”
Ali and Aidan both looked relieved at that news.
“Get him fixed,” Mark said. “You’ll be glad you did, and he won’t really mind.”
“All right,” Cam said, affectionately. “Can I have my table back now?”
“Thanks, Mark,” Noah said, escorting the vet to the door.
After tolerating being wiped down by the damp paper towels, the cat was happy to be put down on the floor to explore the apartment. It looked back at Jesse now and then as if afraid she’d leave. He was trailed by the toddling Aoife, who was clearly delighted by the furry thing. The kitten didn’t seem to mind that at all, flopping over on its side until Aoife caught up, before it danced away out of reach.
Eyeing his daughter and wife, Aidan gave a long-suffering sigh he clearly didn’t mean.
“It looks like we’ll be having a pet,” he said.
Ali hugged him tightly.
Watching everyone – including Mitch – sneak morsels of food to the cat as they ate, Jesse reflected that the cat wouldn’t be undernourished for long. It sat very neatly, and to everyone’s amusement, with its little pink tongue sticking out now and then.
“What are you going to call him?” Molly asked.
It had never really been a question for Jesse. The name suited.
“He’s Tango,” she said. “For that little dance he does before he eats.”
Tango thought he’d gone to heaven. Not only was he warm, but there was light, his belly was full and he was clean. He couldn’t get enough of the people. Hands stroked or patted, gave him food, and they only occasionally complained about him being underfoot. But there was no anger in their voices.
Outside the wind blew, rattling against the windows.
It was cold out there. And dark.
Inside was warm. Inside smelled wonderful.
Jesse grinned as Mitch looked up to see she’d caught him slipping Tango another piece of turkey. In that moment, his brilliant blue eyes twinkling, she couldn’t have loved Mitch more.
“I always thought I’d be a dog person,” he said, to her look.
“We can still get a dog,” she said.
That would be fun. She’d never been able to make up her mind which one she wanted more, a cat or a dog, not that she could have had either until now.
“A puppy. A lab or a collie.”
Mitch shook his head, laughing.
“Just as well,” Mitch said. “We’ll have time. Next year Christmas is at our house.”
Although some part of her had sort of known that, Jesse hadn’t quite faced the fact.
“Wait,” she stammered. “Just wait.”
In the past Christmas had always been celebrated somewhere else – Cam’s house, or Molly’s – even now. Not at the big white house on Oak Street where she’d grown up, although Cam, Molly, and Ali had been there. They’d had sleepovers if Jesse’s mother hadn’t been there. Once or twice she’d snuck Ali into the house if Ali’s foster home had gotten weird. Until then it had been a lonely house in which to grow up.
The first year had been at Ali and Aidan’s little cottage in Ireland, Molly and Jack had hosted it.
Of them all, Jesse had been the most socially awkward. Even with her friends, she’d always felt like a stranger in a strange land, an interloper, at times like these. Like her rare visits to her grandmother.
She was breathless. She could face nutcases, but not this.
“I can’t cook,” she said, trying not to be anxious. Panic set in. “I can’t. There’s decorations, and planning.”
Mitch wrapped an arm around her. “It’s just Christmas.”
Reaching across the table, Cam took her hand. “We’ll all help. It’ll be all right.”
As if sensing her distress, the kitten came running to pat at her leg before leaping into her lap to head butt her chin.
Somehow stroking Tango, feeling Mitch’s arm around her shoulder, and Cam patting her hand, soothed her.
The heat came on, blowing through the vents. The tinsel on the Christmas tree sparkled, waving enticingly to small cat and small child.
Cam’s pretty blue and white balls danced, light sparkling over the walls, windows and ceiling.
Tango found something else to interest him. The glittering balls on the Christmas tree.
Leaping from Jesse’s lap, he pounced.
“Tango, no!” Cam cried, too late, as a batting paw struck.
The ball shot across the room, cat and baby in hot pursuit.
Swatting at the brightly colored thing, scrambling on the hardwood floors, the cat chased the glittering ball across the room with Aoife trying to keep up.
Almost everyone smothered laughter, even as Cam rolled her eyes and tried to fight a smile.
The cat was having a blast and Aoife was giggling.
Family wasn’t always the one you were born to, but the one that loved you in spite of yourself. Or because…
Part of the Millersburg Quartet series.
|The real Tango (and his bear)|