Wednesday, December 19, 2018

A Critterful Christmas ~ Part 3 by Leah St. James

Dmitri pulled the SUV to the shoulder, what there was of it, got out and hacked at the wiper blades with his scraper to dislodge the inch of ice that had accumulated. It was the third time he'd had to pull over since leaving the veterinary clinic, and even for a guy like him who liked winter weather, this was getting old.

Apparently reading his mind, Apollo mrowled when he climbed back into the driver's seat. 

"I know, buddy. The weather is looking a bit iffy for my plan. What do you think? Should I still give it a go?"

It was a simple plan. Get home as quickly as he could, settle Apollo with a bowl of kibble, clean up the cat's mess--quickly--then head back into the storm with a bottle of Chianti and a package of gourmet cheese and crackers his sister had sent him. He'd stick in the box of Belgian chocolates he'd picked up at the warehouse store, just because he liked Belgian chocolate. And because Layla looked like a woman who would enjoy good chocolate. 

He hadn't even shocked himself at how quickly it had taken him to jump from ‘Dr. Spencer’ to simply ‘Layla.” Sometimes things just felt...right.

As if his body agreed, a shot of energy sizzled all the way to his fingertips. 

“Son, you’ve got it bad,” he mumbled to himself. No way he was going to let a foot of snow get in his way of getting to know Dr. Layla Spencer.

He eased the SUV to a faster pace and was nearing his neighborhood when his radio squawked to life.

All units, BOLO for missing teen. Fifteen years old, six feet, 140 pounds, wearing hunting pants and jacket.

The dispatcher added the teen’s name and address. The parents had come home early from a day trip to find him and his dog gone and couldn’t reach him on his cell phone. They’d been out searching several hours.

He thumbed the radio on to acknowledge, then gave the cat carrier a grimace. “Looks like I have to delay my plans, and your bowl of kibble. There’s a kid out in the snow somewhere, and I have no intention of spending Christmas Day telling a couple parents their son is still missing. Or worse.”

After swinging the vehicle in a U-turn, he headed away from civilization. He engaged the flood light and pointed it toward the shoulder of the rural highway, looking for anyone walking or signs that someone had passed—a near impossible task considering the gusting winds and drifting mounds of snow.

He’d driven no more than a quarter mile, creeping along, when Apollo started wailing.

“Not now,” he told the cat. “I’m busy. Be grateful you’re warm inside a heated vehicle, not stuck out there like that poor kid probably is. And his dog.”

In response, Apollo ratcheted up the volume and started clawing at the mesh covering on the side of the carrier.

“Seriously, buddy. I get it. You want out. I can’t deal with you right now.”

The cat kept it up until he was using both paws. Dmitri slowed the car and turned to give his cat a stern look. Apollo’s claws clung to the meshing, and spots of blood dotted the material.

“For crying out loud!” Dmitri flipped open the carrier’s locks and opened the top. “There. You happy now?”

But Apollo wasn’t happy. He stood on his hind legs, front paws on the passenger’s door, and stared fiercely out the window into the dark, his head making tiny jerks from side to side. And he was crying, a pitiful, mournful sound.

Shaking his head and muttering about crazy cats, Dmitri put the vehicle in gear and started forward again. He’d just passed a small access road locals used to get up to the hunting trails when the cat started going berserk, clawing at the faux leather padding like it was the enemy.

He stopped again and leaned over to capture the cat, and a tiny spot of red flashed in his peripheral vision. “What the…?”
Apollo had stopped picking but was looking straight ahead and mrowling again, like he was calling for someone. 

Wondering if he was as deranged as the cat, Dmitri backed up and hung a right onto the access road, pointing the floodlight forward. He’d traveled about a hundred yards uphill when the beam picked up a dark shape in the field of white. He eased the SUV forward until he could make out a vehicle turned sideways and plastered against a large snow bank. Blinking red taillights glowed through the storm like Rudolph’s nose.

Dmitri pulled the SUV as close as he could, then radioed an update and his position to dispatch. “Send a wrecker and a bus,” he added. “It looks nasty. Could be injuries.”

With a pat on Apollo’s head and a caution to the cat to be good, he levered himself from the SUV and jogged to the ditched vehicle, a small, older sedan pitched down at a 20-degree angle. It appeared stable but had come to rest on a sideways tilt, blocking the driver’s side doors. Someone—or something—inside was emitting a high-pitched whining. Whining like a dog.

Dmitri shined his flashlight into the interior. The airbag hadn't deployed, and the driver was moving sluggishly, trying to unbuckle the seat belt. In the back, two figures seemed melded together.
“Hell.” Dmitri slogged around the car, slid and caught himself on the side panel. There was an I BRAKE FOR ANIMALS sticker on the rear bumper. Another read: DON’T ARGUE WITH YOUR VET. SHE KNOWS HOW TO NEUTER.

A snorting laugh caught abruptly in his throat as the beautiful vet’s image flashed through his brain. Layla? What the hell would she be doing out in this storm? With passengers. And a dog?

His heart thundering, his brain testing the theory that he'd actually located the missing teen, he assessed how to extricate them all. He scrambled to the passenger side and tugged on the door. It didn’t budge. He stripped off a glove to rap on the window.
“Hey, Doc! I’m going to get you out. Hang in there!” He pointed to the handle, hoping she understood to unlock the door.

Nodding, she scooted to the right. After another eternity a click signaled the locks unlatching. 

It took a few minutes for Layla and her passenger to climb from the sedan. Thankfully, and miraculously, they appeared shaken up but not injured.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she said, throwing her arms around him for a quick hug...too quick. "I was sure we were destined to become human Popsicles. But we need to hurry," she said. "I have a patient in the back seat who needs attention." She jerked her thumb toward the boy who had hunkered down by the open door. "And we need to call his parents."

After a few quick questions, Dmitri confirmed the boy's identity, and relief flooded him as he made his first happy transmission of the night.

It was another ten minutes to get Apollo back in his carrier, then transfer the dog into the SUV. By that time the EMTs had arrived and bundled the boy onto a stretcher to get checked out at the hospital where his parents would meet him. Layla climbed into the back of his SUV to take care of her patient.

"How is he?" Dmitri stood at the open door, watching as she gently worked her hands along his ribs, back and legs. After a few minutes she looked up, hope in her eyes. 

"He needs a thorough exam, but all things considered, he's in amazingly good shape."

Taking a deep breath for the first time in what felt like hours, Dmitri smiled as she finished up with the dog who had thankfully decided to take a nap. Finally, thirty minutes later, her car was packed up and hauled off.

Layla stared after the wrecker’s tail lights, then sighed. “Looks like I’ll need a new car.”
“Maybe try to get one that has more than a three-inch clearance from the ground? You know so you can drive in this white stuff? We tend to get a lot of it around here.”

She squinted at him and wrinkled her nose. “Ha ha. I’m from southern Texas. What do I know about cars for snow?”

“Yeah?” He ushered her into the front of the SUV, then rushed to take his seat behind the wheel. As he navigated them back onto the main roadway, he said, “You know, I could help you shop. For a new vehicle.”

“You could?” There was a smile in her voice that made him want to grab her and spin her around.

“Absolutely. Consider it a public service, so we don’t have to dig you out of any more snow drifts.”

She jabbed at his arm with her mittened fist. “Again, ha ha ha. Very funny.” After a moment of quiet she said, “Seriously, thank you for rescuing us. I was really worried. But I kept praying. Thank God you found us.”

“Um….” He nearly didn’t tell her, but if anyone would understand, a vet would. “I can’t take all the credit. Apollo somehow sensed you, or maybe the dog, and sort of signaled your position. I figured, what the heck…” He glanced to see if she thought he’d gone insane, but she was nodding. 

“You hear those stories every once in a while. It’s a mystery how they do it.”

They pulled into the lot at the clinic a few minutes later and crawled from the SUV.

“Look.” Layla pointed upward. “The snow stopped.”
Dmitri tilted his head and gazed into a field of stars glimmering against a velvety black sky. “I’ll be damned. No snow. Like it had never happened.”

They got the dog inside and settled, and Dmitri was about to say goodbye, ready to put his wine and cheese aside, along with his budding romantic intentions, when she stopped him with a hand on his arm. 

“It’s midnight. Officially Christmas. I have to check Baxter out, but would you and Apollo care to keep me company for a bit? You can let him out of the carrier. I’ll get him some treats and put a blanket down for him to cuddle in and rest his tail while you and I have some eggnog and cookies?” 

She gave him a hopeful smile, and his heart zinged again.

“There’s nothing I’d like more. Let me get my cat.”

He retrieved the carrier from the SUV and turned it so he could see Apollo's face. “Looks like we’re going to get our date with the beautiful vet after all. Merry Christmas to us, buddy. Merry Christmas.”


I hope you enjoyed meeting Dmitri and  Layla (and Apollo and Baxter). And I hope this story gave you a bit of a break in your busy holiday preparations. (Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.)

Please check back tomorrow for the beginning Alicia Dean's story, "Once Upon a Brave Christmas." (I know it will be great!)

Happy holidays from my family (including Hercules) to yours!

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.


Vonnie Davis said...

It's 12:20 am and I stayed up just for this. My dog is snuggled in one of her beds--there are 4 throughout the house--staring at me. Evie wants to hit the sack with Mommy. I loved your story. What a special ending. So glad all the animals are fine and toasty warm. Great job, Leah. Write, hon, write!

Leah St. James said...

Thank you, Vonnie, for staying up just for this! (That warms MY heart!) Thank you also (again) for your encouragement. You have no idea how much that means. And please give Evie my thanks for sharing her time with Mommy. :-)

Unknown said...

Interesting. Thanks for sharing. FH

Leah St. James said...

Thanks, Frances, for stopping by! Hope you enjoyed. :-)

Margo Hoornstra said...

Oh, Leah. That was wonderful. Tell us again why your aren’t writing these days? DO IT! I didn’t have the dedication to stay up like Vonnie, our alarm goes off at four thirty, but I totally agree. Write, hon, write. I’m another one who believes in animal instincts. They know so much more than we do.

Leah St. James said...

THANK YOU, Margo. (You 'guys' have no idea how much your support means to me.) I'm so glad you enjoyed the ending. Since Apollo had fallen in love with the vet (just like his 'dad'), I wanted him to be a part of the rescue. I actually researched stories about amazing pets, like the lost ones who trek across the country to find their families. There are some really cool stories out there. Anyway, thank you again, for your kind words. :D

Brenda Whiteside said...

Great ending to a very enjoyable story. Thanks, Leah!

Alicia Dean said...

Purrrfect...get it? :) What a smart cat. Love this story...these two wonderful people deserve to find one another. Ha, love her bumper stickers. Nice touch. Thank you for giving me a sigh-worthy start to my day! And, thanks for the nice intro. Ah, the pressure... :)

Leah St. James said...

Thank you, Brenda. I'm glad you enjoyed it. :-)

Leah St. James said...

Thanks, Ally. I can't wait to read yours. The title is intriguing me!

remullins said...

Thoroughly enjoyed the story. I read it out loud to my animals (2 cats/2 dogs). The dogs listened with eyes opened wide but the cats snoozed. I got the feeling they were telling me not to count on them to save a dog.

Leah St. James said...

How fun, Robin!! I can picture it perfectly! :-) I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

Jannine Gallant said...

What a terrific ending! Lovely story, Leah! I feel all warm inside.

Rolynn Anderson said...

Love your characters, but Apollo gets stars for this adorable double meet cute. Thanks for a great story, Leah!

Diane Burton said...

Such a great ending. I love your story. You captured the characters well and Apollo... While I'm not a cat person, you made him into such a hero how could I not like him? LOL I hope you do more writing. I enjoy your stories. But, I know it's hard while holding down a full-time job. Hugs. Merry Christmas to you & your family.

Leah St. James said...

I'm so glad you approve, Jannine. I was stressing out over the injured dog element, hoping I did right by poor Baxter! :-) Thank you.

Leah St. James said...

Thank you, Rolynn! I kind of like these characters, too, and they came out of the blue (except, of course, for Hercules). Don't you love when that happens? So glad you enjoyed the story.

Leah St. James said...

Who knows, Diane...there could be an Apollo in your future some day! :-) Thanks for reading and for the kinds words/encouragement.

Christine DePetrillo said...

Such a cute story!

Leah St. James said...

Thanks, Chris. Merry Christmas to you and your critters. :-)

Alison Henderson said...

What a lovely story, although I did have to laugh when Dmitri let Apollo out of the carrier and admonished him to "be good." As if!