He peered through the snow-spattered windshield at the neon sign and hoped like hell there was room at the inn.
Dmitri Jones turned off the car’s ignition, sighed, then turned to the creature caged in the passenger seat at his side.
“It’s okay, buddy. We’ll get you fixed up good as new. I promise.” He inserted a finger tentatively through the peek-hole in the carrying case, only to snap it back a nanosecond later.
Sucking on his finger to soothe the scratch that hadn’t quite broken the skin, he swung the SUV’s door open and pushed to his feet. Despite the sign that advertised 24-hour care, the veterinary clinic was dark as a graveyard. A single floodlight at the corner of the roof was the only sign of life, if you could ascribe that word to the dim beam that looked like it could crap out at any moment. The only thing it was lighting was the snow falling at a rate of an inch an hour on top of a single compact car at the end of the parking lot.
It was Christmas Eve in Serenity, Pennsylvania, and not a creature was stirring. That’s what he got for moving from the lively comforts of urban Philly to the boonies. And this was the booniest of the boonies, way out on the county’s rural route. Had a closer clinic been open, he wouldn’t have slipped and slid the several miles over the mountain roads. Another pitiful mewl from inside the carrier reminded him he probably would have crawled here to get care for Apollo.
He slammed his door shut, and somewhere in the not-too-far distance, a cacophony of barking erupted.
Ice-packed snow crunched under his boots as he moved around the car to the passenger door. After another sigh, and a deep breath that was half prayer, he opened the door and lifted the pet carrier.
His action was met with frantic mrowling, some hissing, and a lot of scrambling inside the confined space, making the carrier pitch and yaw as if possessed.
“Apollo, settle down before you hurt yourself worse.”
With a few mutters about damn cats and their propensity for finding trouble, he marched toward the front door to the clinic. A Please Ring sign on the front had him leaning on the doorbell.
The shrill pealing did nothing to quiet the canine residents, whose barks had turned from inquisitive to frenzied, but it made him feel like he was doing something. Because if anything happened to Apollo…
The cat had only been with him for a couple months, but in that short time, he’d grown attached to the little brat. More, he’d made him forget how damned lonely he’d been for the past couple years.
His mother had known. She’d practically forced the cat on him. A rescue, she’d told him…or a rescue to be. If Dmitri didn’t take him, he’d go to a shelter, and no one wanted that. Especially for a big, strong bruiser of a tom cat like Apollo who could clear a cluttered table with one swipe of his paw, then pounce on the detritus until it was shredded to his satisfaction.
And since Dmitri had decorated for Christmas the past weekend, the cat was in tinsel heaven.
He’d cat-proofed as much as he could before leaving for his 12-hour shift that morning, hoping for the best, but when he’d dragged his weary ass through the door that evening, it was like walking straight into a scene out of Twister. Lights securely strung at his windows just a few weeks ago now looped lazily to the floor. Garland he’d twisted up and around the banister lay shredded along the stairs like a swath of evergreen road kill. And the Christmas tree—that hurt. The 7-foot Douglas Fir lay on its side, the feet of the 18-inch tree holder braced at a 90-degree angle to the floor. Bulbs had fallen and rolled every which way, littering his brand-new hardwood flooring with splinters of gleaming gold, red and blue glass. And underneath it all, a spreading stream of water.
It’s not like the stuff was irreplaceable, but the decorations reminded him of quiet holiday mornings with his mom, dad and sister, before he’d joined the Army—where holidays were a whole different challenge—then moved half a state away to take this job.
He’d stood there, stunned, wondering what to do first, when a low growling caught his attention. It took him a minute, following the tortured sound, to locate the damn cat who had wedged himself in the corner behind the fallen tree. Dropping to his hands and knees, he crept forward through the puddle and across broken bulbs and ornaments to grab him.
“What’s the matter, buddy?” Another low growl answered.
That Apollo was hunkered down instead of running was Dmitri’s second hint that all was not well with his new pet. The third was the bite he got when he lifted him and Apollo turned into a hissing, spitting, scratching, biting demon. It was only sheer strength that enabled Dmitri to keep the cat from going for his jugular.
His musings were cut short when the clinic door flung open, bounced against the interior wall and boomeranged back toward the woman who stood there, glowering.
“Holy moly,” she yelped, wrapping a white lab coat more securely around her shivering body. “Where’s the fire?”
“Uh…” Words escaped Dmitri because standing before him was an angel. A dark angel for sure, with blue-black hair caught away from her face and eyes that, despite their scowling expression, reminded him of the richest hot fudge.
“Can I help you? Or are we going to stand here all night while I freeze to death?”
Her southwestern twang was a rarity in this part of Pennsylvania. This angel was not from these parts.
“Sorry, I uh… are you open? My cat. I think he broke his tail. It won’t straighten. Just kind of--” He made a floppy motion with his wrist, then hefted the still fidgeting carrier and turned it so she could peer into the mesh front.
Her face softened. “Don’t tell me. Your Christmas tree is toast, right?” She stepped back, waving him forward.
“Yeah, well. I think it’s fixable. I’m not so sure about Apollo here.”
The sudden thickness in his voice was unexpected. Truth be told, his mom was right. He had been lonely, and the cat an unexpected pleasure. He was fun. And simple, like himself. Apollo ate. He drank. He used his litter box. He even perched himself in front of the 65-inch TV screen when football was on.
“Come on back. Let’s take a look.” Walking backwards, she extended her hand. “Dr. Spencer. Layla Spencer.”
He introduced himself and his cat as they shook hands—hers soft, silky and warm. Dmitri followed her into an examination room with lighting so bright, he wished he’d brought in his ball cap to shade his eyes.
Squinting, he set the carrier on the table and opened it, prepared for Apollo to bolt. But Dr. Spencer—Layla—had crouched down and was talking to the scared and hurting animal in some sort of language that he apparently understood. After crooning “poor baby” a few times and promising she wouldn’t hurt him, she reached into the carrier and eased Apollo onto the table. Instead of running for his life, he lay there, blinking, and staring at her as if he’d taken a couple shots from Cupid’s bow.
Giving the cat long, soothing strokes halfway down his pelt of jet black fur with one hand, while holding him in place with the other, she turned her attention to Dmitri.
“Chances are you’re right about Apollo’s tail, but tell me about him. How old is he? Could he have eaten anything? Are there other animals in the home? Does he go outside?”
“He’s two years old. I just got him actually. He belonged to a friend of my mom’s who couldn’t keep him. I don’t know too much about his history other than he’s been healthy, has all his shots and has been fixed.” He made air quotes around that last gruesome euphemism for taking the poor cat’s manhood.
“He eats well. Plays a lot.” An image of his trashed house flicked through his mind, and he filled her in on what had happened. She listened intently, then she leaned down to whisper a few more words to Apollo. The cat answered by purring, loudly, with squeaking punctuation marks every few seconds.
"Aren’t you a good boy?” she crooned while motioning for Dmitri to hold the cat. After gently probing the length of the tail, she finished examining him, including his eyes and mouth, heart and lungs with a tiny stethoscope hooked around her neck.
“He’s healthy. I don’t feel a break, and I don’t see any evidence of an abscess or wound of any kind. I think it’s sprained. My guess is he got it stuck in something when he upended the tree, then yanked to pull himself free. That could do it.”
“What’s the treatment?”
“Just rest. He should be fine in a few days. I could X-ray, but I’m pretty confident it’s not broken judging by the way the end is twitching. He just can’t lift it.” She washed her hands at the sink and turned to give him a smile over her shoulder. “No need to go to the expense just yet. Unless you insist.”
He didn’t insist, although he wouldn’t mind hanging out a bit longer. The remoteness of the place had his cop’s senses on edge, but if he were honest, he’d admit his other, more manly senses were taking more notice of the doctor herself.
Pushing the thoughts aside, he managed to maneuver Apollo into his cage, despite more angry chatter from the cat, and followed the vet to the front desk.
“That will be $100. I take cash, check or card.”
He offered her his plastic and finally blurted the first thing on his mind. “You here all by yourself? On Christmas Eve?”
The look she gave him was bland, but her eyes were dead serious. “You here to make trouble for me? On Christmas Eve? If you are, you should know I have a loaded Colt Cobra .38 Special under this counter and I know how to use it.”
His eyebrows shot to his forehead. “Hell, no. I’m with the Serenity PD, for crying out loud. Just making sure you’ll be safe.” His eyebrows drew together. “You got a license for that .38?”
“Yes, Officer…” Her eyes dropped to his credit card. “…Jones.” A hint of humor flashed across her face as she handed it back, along with her business card. “Call me first thing tomorrow and let me know how Apollo is doing.”
“On Christmas day? No day off for you?”
“They’re my patients, my responsibility and my priority.”
“Well…thanks.” He lifted the case and headed for the door, still reluctant to head from the warmth of the clinic, and the beautiful vet. He ran his gaze around the reception area one more time, then gave her a final smile.
“Make sure you lock up after me, Doc. Thanks for being here on Christmas Eve instead of with your family.”
She tilted her head, a smile ghosting at her lips. “My critters are my family, Officer. Merry Christmas.”
The thought of no family sat like a lump in his gut. No one should be alone on Christmas. An idea began to germinate.
Back out in the SUV's frigid interior, Apollo gave a single mighty wail.
“I’m with you, buddy,” he said, “I don’t want to leave her either. But don’t worry, I have a plan.”
I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of my holiday story. Please come back tomorrow for Part 2.
Those of you who follow this blog might recognize Apollo as a ringer for my older son's cat Hercules. (Yeah, I kept with the mythological god naming convention.) :-)
Hercules hasn't broken or sprained his tail (yet), but he's wreaked havoc on our trees for three years straight now. (The lopsided, de-decorated tree pictured below was the aftermath of his leaping attacks in year one. I think that's him peeking from behind our TV on the lower left, preparing for another leap.)