An embittered old man’s Christmas Eve trip to the veterinarian with his late son’s cat Otis yields an unexpected lesson. As the snowfall mounts and city streets become impassable, is it too late for redemption?
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Straight
Protagonist 1 Age: 66+
Protagonist 2 Age: 26-35
Protagonist 3 Age: 26-35
Tropes: Moral Failure
Word Count: 6000
Setting: A Midwestern American city.
Languages Available: English
It had to be done.
He prayed for resolve and lit a candle at a church he’d come upon. The Yuletide worshippers, mostly families overdressed to compensate for under-attendance, made him uneasy. The stranger in the puffy coat at the end of their pew seemed to make them equally suspicious. He quickly joined those parishoners leaving the altar, since he had Otis in the car.
A little boy stuck his tongue out at him and snuffed his candle. A tornadic speck of gray spun off the stubby wick.
So much for good will toward men.READ MORE
He felt even more a coward as he drove the darkness in this unfamiliar city. The holiday lights, strewn from shrub to satellite dish, were disorienting. He knew the street name and the street intersecting it; a Yellow Pages from his son’s kitchen junk drawer had supplied the address. BEST FuRIENDS was equipped to handle emergencies 24/7. Distinguishing signage was a challenge in in the snowfall. While not a hindrance, it soon would be, if the forecast of a very white Christmas he’d just heard on the rental car’s radio was accurate. After almost a month, the Kia still handled strangely, lending even more urgency to what he had to do.
The cat Otis in its carrier intuited this too. Its cries of protest harmonized with the grinding of a plow chugging past.
The rippling veil of snow parted to grinning whiskers that crisscrossed the pointy tail of a dog on the lit placard. The building was T-shaped. In an attempt to render the clinic’s painted cinderblock homey, awnings had been appended but, removed for winter, their frames looked like cold bones ready to snap, clanking with every gust.
He left the Kia running, the cat inside. His dismayed exhale frosted the glass of the front door. A cardboard clock with orange hands hung from a small suction cup; staff would return in one hour, by 9 p.m. Above it, a wreath with an unraveling red bow banged when the wind looped through.
Inside, though, he saw a woman wearing a white smock, white jeans and white sneakers, making the long red hair puddle on her shoulders that much more vivid. She was tending the curved reception desk with an antibacterial cloth. He pounded with a solid fist, sure she’d become inured by the wreath’s tat-tat-tat.
She acknowledged it with the slightest pivot. “Bear with me” she seemed to mouth.
He wedged his bare hands under his arms as she unlocked the door.
“I’m sorry to interrupt your break,” he apologized. “I have a cat out in my car.”
“Our last vet left. One’s on-call. How reliably he answers his pager tonight I can’t promise. Is your cat in distress?”
He paused. “This isn’t specifically medical.”
She blinked. “Does the cat have a name?”
He gave a false name but one he could remember if challenged, the name of Willamette Manor’s general manager, the one with the handlebar mustache. “Art Timmons.”
“I’m Tamra, Mr. Timmons. I go by Tam. I’m a vet tech. It’s cold. Bring Otis in.”
He moved quickly, coming back inside with the hard plastic carrier. He rolled it on its casters to rest evenly on a fringed runner. Tam, back behind the desk, smoothed her hair, a tangled nest of copper springs in varying lengths and sizes. She barely had eyebrows or lashes. Being free of cosmetics didn’t help, but her general features were pleasant, almost child-like, including some freckling on the bridge of her nose. She offered to put his coat on a halltree wrapped in silver garland, “if you’re too warm. It seems like I’m always hot.”
“I don’t intend to be here long.”
That was his stiff substitute for what he really wanted to say, and that was let’s get this show on the road.
The snow clung to the cuff of his trousers and bled into his socks. He stomped to clear the slush puddling around his shoes. This startled the cat, who threw itself against the sides of the carrier.
She came around, buttoning her smock. “Let’s give Otis a minute.” She playfully inserted one finger between the latticework ventilation. An emerald ring caught the light.
A green stone suited a redhead, he thought.
“You’re pretty gutsy to wear white around all of their messes.”
She winked. “I’ll leave here as spotless as I came in. We’re noted for cleanliness. You don’t smell animals, do you?”
No, he admitted, “I mostly smell the tree.” He looked at the skinny fir in the corner, decorated with dog chews and catnip mice for sale.
“It’s a good fake.” He approached it to inspect its branches. “We always had real.”
She frowned. “Real dry out and can be dangerous.”
“You draw the short straw to be working Christmas Eve?”
“I volunteered. This is, after all, a night of animals witnessing a miracle.”
“Awfully large facility to be staffed by a little gal like you.”
“There’s usually more of us. It’s unusual circumstances.”
“Bad weather coming in.”
“That, and Christmas,” she reminded him.
He sniffed again. “I smell something burning."
Tam’s left shoulder hitched to indicate the back of the clinic. "Empty coffee pot on a warmer.”
Upon his next sniff, she offered tissue from a box with “Allergies?”
He dabbed his nostrils. “Possibly. Domesticated animals in general were never my forte.”
This was proven by the way he fumbled with the carrier. She brushed his hands aside with “I’ll do that” and disengaged a front pin lock that worked like a deadbolt.
Otis lowered his head in caution yet stepped immediately out onto the tile to investigate his environs.
"Male cat. Curious and unafraid.”
She stroked his back, which arched for more. She quickly inspected his ears; he shook his head. She checked his teeth; he shook his head. “Look at your pink nose.” She continued her onceover. “Declawed, front only. What pretty white boots."
"My son called them spats. Darren." This too was fiction. His son’s name was Mitchell. “Otis belonged to him. He passed December 3rd. I’m here settling things.”
A perfunctory expression of sorrow he awaited didn’t come.
Instead, she passed her palm down the length of the cat’s body and estimated Otis at 10 or 11, “not yet a senior citizen but his kitten days are well behind him. Listen to that motor start up!” she noted of the cat’s loud purr. She upended Otis to glance at his rear. “Neutered. Housecat only, I assume.” She gently pressed his groin and abdomen, then his throat for swelling or reaction. “So what’s the problem with Otis?”
“I’m in an assisted living community. Pets aren’t allowed.”
Lie Number 3. Animals up to twenty pounds were permitted if accompanied by a security deposit.
“So you brought him to us for…?”
Steady. The word was bound to instigate confrontation.