L. C. Mohr
This story came to me one day while I was waiting for a bus. By the time I arrived at the office it was pouring out of me like an overflowing toilet -- well, let's make that a sink. Stories don't often come to me that way. The ending surprised me as much as I hope it surprises the reader.
She glanced at her watch. The bus was two minutes late, which wasn't late at all really, considering its usual bad service. And she'd left herself an extra hour -- she always did when she had a doctor's appointment.
She used to take car service but she'd stopped doing that. It wasn't the money. She could easily afford the expense but the drivers always made her so nervous. They either drove too close to the car in front or took the wrong turns, and then got angry at her because she didn't know how to direct them. After all, she'd never driven a car. How was she supposed to know which highways to take?
She eased her tote bag off her shoulder -- it was creasing the fur of her mink jacket -- and rested it on the cracked wooden bench. It was safe enough there. Most of the commuters from her neighborhood caught earlier buses. She was alone. She paced in front of the bench, then checked her watch again. She sighed; still no bus.
Suddenly, she jumped at a noise behind her -- a soft noise, like an animal. She looked around, glancing under the bench. It had sounded like a cat meowing. No, nothing there.
The sky was starting to cloud up. She took a deep breath, coughed and glanced at her watch again. She looked up. Oh good, she thought, here it comes.
It was moving too fast, as usual. It must be that driver -- the one who always frightened her, the one who always pretended he wasn't going to stop at all. Then he'd slam the brakes on and skid to a stop with a bone-rattling screech. Always in the middle of the street -- not near the curb where he should be. He made her feel like he resented having to stop for her.
She turned toward the bench and reached out for her bag. The strap caught between two of the slats. She tugged it. It tightened. She pulled it again then glanced back toward the bus. It was almost here.
She grabbed her bag with both hands and yanked hard. It wouldn't budge.
The bus screeched to a stop in the middle of the street. She looked at it. Looked back at the bench, tugged again. Looked at the bus again. The driver glared out the open door at her. She looked up at him, back at the bench, up at him -- she felt tears pricking her eyes.
The driver made a noise like a growl, snapped the doors shut, and pulled away.
She realized she'd been holding her breath and exhaled. She turned back to the bench and pulled the straps one last time. The bag came loose. She grabbed it, flung it over her shoulder and looked toward the bus. But it was a block away already. Should she run -- try to catch it?
As she stared after the fast-receding bus, a yellow puff came out the back. Then a flame.
The bus was on fire!
She watched in open-mouthed horror as flames crept up the sides of the bus like giant orange hands. The bus made a turn and was out of her sight. Then she heard an enormous bang and screams!
She let her breath out, clutched her bag with white knuckles and stood paralyzed. She heard sirens. She turned slowly and started back toward her house. It was only a block and a half but her knees trembled the whole way. As she stepped onto the front stair and fumbled for her key, she heard a mewling noise and jumped back.
There was a cat sitting on her front porch. It was several shades of orange and brown, the kind people referred to as a calico, she thought. But she didn't know much about cats. It was licking its paw, but its actions seemed strange. Then she realized that the cat was hurt. It was holding its paw up in the air staring pitifully at her, meowing. She approached it gingerly. It sat very still, as though waiting for her.
She surprised herself by leaning down and picking it up. It meowed gently and fitted itself comfortably into the crook of her arm. She found her key and let herself into the house.
I guess I'm not going anywhere after all, she thought. She called the doctor's office, told his nurse she'd missed the bus and made an appointment for the following week. She didn't feel like she could tell her what had really happened. But she'd tell Jack.
Ah, Jack! She still smiled every time she thought of him. He was so tall and so handsome. With his silver hair and sparkling blue eyes. Jack was the most elegant man she had ever seen. And he had noticed her! He had seen her shopping at the supermarket and had come over to talk to her. He had noticed her there before, he'd said. She couldn't get over the wonderfulness of a man like Jack wanting to be with her. Actually being attracted to her! Jack was coming to take her to dinner tonight. She would tell him all about it. He would make sense of it all.
She heard a noise and looked down. It was the cat. She'd almost forgotten about the cat. The poor thing must be hungry. She thought about giving it some milk, but she vaguely remembered reading somewhere that milk wasn't good for cats, so she put out a bowl of water and opened a can of tuna for it. It daintily but quickly swallowed half the food, then looked up at her and smiled. She laughed at herself. Cats couldn't smile. But this one seemed to.
She spent most of the afternoon sitting on the couch with the cat on her lap. She felt soothed and happy. The cat was so soft -- and clean. That was something she'd worried about but she needn't have. Also the cat's paw seemed to have healed.
The doorbell rang. She jumped and the cat leaped gently to the floor. She glanced at the clock. Oh my, it was after six. She must have fallen asleep! She rushed to the front door, smoothing her hair.
"I must look a mess," she said when Jack's smile turned to a quizzical frown.
"No, no," he protested in that deep melodic voice she loved so much. "You look wonderful." He leaned down and pecked at her cheek.
Suddenly she saw him freeze and his face paled.
"What is that?" He growled in a voice she didn't recognize.
She turned. "Oh, it's just a cat I found..."
"A cat?" He glared at her. "How dare you get a cat! You know how I feel about cats!"
She shook her head. "No, I don't know. I didn't think..."
"You never think! You're a fool! I hate cats!" He was screaming now. "Do you think I would put up with you if I knew you were going to collect CATS?!" He spat the word at her. "Believe me, even your money isn't worth my having to put up with..."
She stared at him. "My money?" She whispered.
He was panting and his face had turned bright red. Without another word, he turned, wrenched the door open and left the house, slamming the door behind him.
She stared at the closed door for a moment. Then she heard a noise. She looked down. The cat sat at her feet, licking its paw. It looked up at her and smiled. A sad smile this time, but still a smile. Suddenly the cat's smile turned to a frown and it meowed loudly. It walked to the door and scratched once with its paw. She continued to stare at it.
The cat meowed louder and scratched several more times.
"You want to go out?" She opened the door. The cat took a step out, sat on the front porch and turned its head back to look at her. It meowed again, as though calling her.
"What is it? It's dark out. I don't want to come out."
But still the cat meowed at her.
"No -- you go do what you have to do and I'll wait here."
The cat held up its paw and meowed pitifully.
"Oh, all right." She took a step out onto the porch. Then she saw it. Smoke coming from the side of the house. "What..."
The leaves she'd piled there yesterday were smoldering. She ran to the other side of the house and pulled on the hose. Meanwhile she could smell the burning leaves. Just as she realized the hose was hopeless tangled, she remembered that she had shut the water off yesterday when she'd finished raking. She ran back to the smoldering pile. She could see flames now. She glanced next door. There was a hose!
As she started to force her way through the rose bushes that grew along the property line, a man came out the side door. "What is it?" he called.
"Fire! There's a fire in my yard and it's right against my house!"
The man grabbed the hose, pulled it through the rose bushes and doused the burning leaves. Gray bitter smoke filled the air. He turned to her.
"Good thing you saw it. There's a lot of wood in that crawl space and the fire could easily have worked its way up through your floorboards." He smiled at her -- a smoky, dusty smile.
She smiled back. "Thank you so much."
He pulled a large red handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the grime off his face. "Not the nicest way to meet somebody, but..." He held his hand out. "I'm Henry."
"Grace," she said, shaking his big warm hand.
"And what's her name?" He asked, looking down.
"Who? Oh!" The cat looked up at the two of them. Grace smiled. "I don't know yet. I don't even know if it's... I mean if she's mine. I just found her this morning. Actually ... she's the one who found the fire."
"Well," he grinned. "I always said cats were smarter than humans. Say..." he began, then hesitated. "I was just going out for a lonely bachelor dinner. How about joining me?"
"Well..." She had plans for this evening, didn't she? Oh, no, she almost forgot... there was no more Jack in her life. She smiled shyly back. Why not? She nodded. "I'd like that."
The paperboy flung the Gazette onto the porch, next to the other three untouched newspapers. It unfurled and lay face up, gently rustling in the early morning breeze. A calico cat, who was sleeping on one of the older papers, opened an eye, got up and stretched slowly. She began to delicately lick her paw. As the first rain drop fell on her head, she glanced up, frowned softly and padded away, leaving the headline visible:
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