Tuesday, December 18, 2018
A Critterful Christmas ~ Part 2 by Leah St. James
Layla locked up after the sexy police officer and set the alarm. Then she watched through the blinds while he secured his cat in the front seat of the police department’s vehicle before swiping his hands over the front and back windshields to clear the accumulated snow. That was a man used to the white stuff.
Predictions called for six to ten overnight on top of the six already on the ground. It would be a very white Christmas. Lord how she’d wished for that growing up in Texas. They got occasional winter frost, sometimes ice. Never anything that required knee-high boots to navigate, unless you counted waders for fishing. Neither had she ever had to stow an ice pick in her car to hack her way to the door lock. Had she realized how cold it had to be to snow, she might not have wished so hard. And she might have thought twice before moving to the middle of nowhere in Northeastern Pennsylvania where the average late spring temperatures mimicked the winter lows she was accustomed to.
A shiver worked its way from her shoulders down her spine, and she wrapped her arms more securely around her middle as she made her way toward the kennel area in the back to check on her charges.
Occupancy was light for a holiday, only four dogs. They might be small in number but were sure mighty in volume. Since taking over the veterinary practice a year and a half ago, she’d been full up only once, and that was during the fall, a perfect storm, she’d been told, of deer hunting and football season. People in these parts tended to have family nearby who would care for their pets when they traveled.
It was a nice little area—big little area in square miles, she corrected herself, but with a friendly small-town feel. The main shopping area was a half mile to the west, home to a beauty salon, indy book store, state liquor store, grocery/pharmacy, as well as a couple convenience store/gas stations and restaurants of the mom-and-pop diner variety with one of the best bakeries she’d ever encountered. The area’s main industry came from the ski slopes ten miles to the north of town. Families flocked from the suburbs to ski the trails in the winter, and frolic in the water park/lakeside resort in the spring and summer. Most of the county’s residents worked there in one capacity or another. And in the past eighteen months, she’d met many of them and their pets. A few had become good friends even if they tended to stick by themselves, especially at holidays.
All in all, it wasn’t a bad life she’d made for herself—just solitary.
Normally she could handle lonely, even preferred it after five long and excruciatingly boring years with her ex, a man who claimed to love her—and all her pets—to the moon, then demonstrated it by trying to get rid of her most senior cat while she was away at a conference. The creep. She’d gotten home early, just in time to discover he’d taken 15-year-old Charlie to the local shelter. She’d retrieved her cat and booted the man out on his backside, for good.
Figuring her heart had frozen with the temperature in these parts, she hadn’t thought of romance in too many moons to count. But seeing big, brawny Dmitri Jones talking baby talk to his cat had thawed something inside her, and whatever it was had gushed to the center of her heart and made her yearn for more. She’d shut her front door and locked it behind him, but a part of her had wanted to follow, to climb into the SUV with him and his tomcat.
It was a crazy thought, one that made her give herself a mental shake.
Despite that mental shake, an image of his earnestly worried blue eyes as he’d asked for help popped into her mind. Blue eyes, golden blond hair, a chiseled face and body that reminded her of a Viking warrior followed close behind. Sighing, she willed the image away, along with the tsunami of female interest it aroused.
Patting her chest in the region of her heart, she hurried toward the kennel and pushed through the double swinging doors to check on her Christmas Eve charges.
She’d just finished feeding the crew—the big German shepherd, a basset hound, a beagle and a yappie terrier—when the doorbell pealed, and pealed and pealed.
“What the…” she murmured. “Is nobody taught patience anymore?”
She flipped on the lights, hit the alarm code and pulled the door open.
A man stood there, arms crossed over his chest and shaking like he was palsied. She peered closer. Not a man. A teen, probably 15 or 16. Still young and stupid enough to get himself into real trouble, old enough that it would count. He wore a camouflage jacket and pants, with a mud-colored cap covering muddy brown hair.
His forehead glistened, and his eyes looked like she’d captured them in a flash—shocky. The dogs’ frenzied barking was probably giving him a massive headache to boot.
“Ma’am? Is the vet here?” It was the voice of a kid. A scared kid.
“I’m Dr. Spencer.” She drew her lab coat around her once more, stepped into the frigid air and squinted into the night to look for the injured animal. “Who needs a vet?”
“My dog. We were out hiking and he took off after a rabbit then fell into a hole. I found him and pulled him out but I think he broke his leg. He can’t walk and is whining like he’s in pain.”
“Did you call your parents?”
“I dropped my cell phone somewhere when I was looking for him so started walking for help. Besides, they're out of town.” He gulped. “I need you to come with me. He’s too big for me to carry. Please.”
Something smelled fishy about this kid’s story, but then kids weren’t always the most rational beings. Layla gave him a good, long look. He didn’t look crazy, or high. Just scared…and feverish. She swung the door wide so he could enter. “What’s your name? Do you live around here? I’ll bet your parents don’t know about this, do they?”
His head wagged from side to side and grimaced. “My name is Christian Johnson and I live a mile down the road. Like I said, my parents went to some thing in Philly for the day and—” He lifted his shoulders in a can’t-be-helped gesture.
“Give me their number.”
“Ma’am?” He sniffed and ran a hand under his nose
“You’re obviously a minor and I’m not taking you anywhere without letting your parents know.”
He recited the ten digits, and she placed the call. “No answer.”
“I told you, they’re not home.”
She held his gaze for a long count, looking for signs of a lie. Kids could be such good liars. “Where is your dog?”
“I made a shelter for him about half a mile to the north. I tied him there and told him to stay, and now I’m scared he’ll freeze. Or that another animal will get him.” His wobbly voice spurred Layla to hurry to grab her medical bag, coat and boots. She hated to leave the dogs in their crates with no one in the building, but the thought of a wounded animal lying in the cold in the middle of a storm, that was a biggie.
Several minutes later they set off in the direction he pointed. Her little car’s heater pumped out cold air like A/C in the summer while she squinted through the wipers slapping crazily at the windshield. The snow had picked up its pace, and in the back of her mind was the worry they might not make it back. The kid sat next to her, his arms wrapped around himself, teeth chattering. He’d likely been out in the cold for too long. Nothing felt right about this.
After plowing along a bumpy, uphill road, through close to a half a foot of the fluffy white stuff, she pulled to a stop where he pointed at the edge of the lane. Ahead was a rustic lean-to shelter at the edge of a copse of trees. Inside the shelter, a dark shape lay on the ground, motionless.
The boy jerked his chin toward the shelter. “There he is. Please hurry.”
Every molecule begging to stay inside the relative warmth of the vehicle, she pulled up her hood, tied the laces under her chin and stepped into the swirling snow. If she’d thought it was cold on her front porch, this was arctic. Even taking a breath hurt, so she focused on marching one step at a time through the shin-high powder. As she approached, she fumbled with her cell phone to turn on the flash light and shined it toward the figure now ten feet away. It was a large black lab, lying on his side.
She jogged to him, dropped to her knees and opened her kit. “What’s the dog’s name?”
“Baxter. He’s ten years old. I’ve had him since—” The boy’s voice broke.
Relief gushed through Layla when she placed the stethoscope over the dog’s chest and picked up a faint heartbeat. “I need you to go to my car. Open the trunk. There are blankets in there. Bring a couple back. Quickly.”
While the boy retrieved the blankets, she checked the lab for wounds or other signs of injury. The one leg was swollen, no protruding bones, but the boy could be right. “Come on, Baxter boy, hang in there. We’ve got you now. It’s Christmas Eve. Let’s make this a happy memory, okay?”
After they’d bundled the dog in the blankets, Layla grabbed her phone from her pocket and caught the boy’s gaze. “You’re not in trouble, but I’m calling the police.”
His eyes widened and he gulped. “Why?”
“Like I said, you’re a minor and I need to let them know what’s going on. I should have done this back at the clinic.”
After another gulp, he nodded. Layla hit 9-1-1, but nothing happened. She peered at the phone’s tiny icons. “Crud. No service.”
“Yeah, I could have told you that, Dr. Spencer. We’re at the edge of a wildlife area.” The boy had dropped to his knees and had cradled his dog who’d roused enough to lick his tongue over the tears sliding down the boy’s face.
Her heart melting, she still gave him an eye-roll. “Wise guy.” She repacked her bag. “Let’s get this big boy back to the clinic. I’m calling the police and you’re calling your parents from there. Understood?”
By the time they made it back to the car, another inch or so of snow had fallen. She used her arm to swipe it off, as she’d seen Dmitri Jones do, then slid behind the wheel. In front of her was nothing but white, no signs of the road itself. Praying the boy didn’t realize what deep doo-doo they were in, she flexed her hands to ease her death grip on the wheel and eased into the storm.
“Dr. Spencer, you might want to put it in a lower gear going down the hill.”
“What hill?” Layla afforded herself a quick glance to the rear. Christian was pointing straight ahead.
“It’s a pretty steep pitch, and with Baxter, we’re a good 75 pounds heavier than we were heading up.”
“Right.” Long-forgotten equations involving force, mass and acceleration snarled in her head. “We’ll pick up speed faster.”
“That’s right!” The kid’s tone was half shock and half pride, and she had to smile as she eased off the gas and levered the gear from drive to second.
For whatever reason, though, her little car didn’t seem to recognize the command. The engine revved a few times and the car jolted forward down the incline that was, indeed, pretty steep.
Moving to first gear didn’t help. Neither did gently tapping on the brakes. Neither did a full-on foot-slam. The car picked up speed, bumping down the mountain that these people called a hill at an ever-increasing rate. “Crap! Hold on!” Layla yelled as she battled the wheel.
She’d navigated a particularly sinister curve when the car hit bottom with a crunching thud. The force catapulted them sideways, and they started to slide down another steep incline. After executing a tilt-a-whirl move, the car careened into a mountain of white.
If you missed Part 1 of A Critterful Christmas, you can find it here. I hope you'll come back tomorrow for the story's conclusion.
Leah writes stories of mystery and romance, good and evil, and the power of love. Learn more at her website, or visit her Facebook page where she occasionally posts about writing, her life, her son's cat and more.