Justin watched the woman next door wandering around her snowy yard in sensible pumps and a long wool coat, by the anemic LED light from her garage floods, wondering what on earth was wrong with him.
He’d seen her around, usually coming and going with the kid, for a week; he’d meant to walk over and introduce himself. Instead he’d slipped into his comfy chair and his noise cancelling headset, grabbed his keyboard, and let the complex politics of his Spectre Armada: Armageddon Impact crew swallow him whole.
The woman next door crouched in the snow, peering under the bayberry hedge that bordered the other side of her front yard. She dropped a crumpled something in order to chafe her palms together, and a frantic orange animal exploded out of the hedge to pounce on it.
With a grace Justin admired, she whipped off her scarf and wrapped the creature in it like a straightjacket, then rose and made her way across the yard. The struggling cat–for a large ginger cat it was–clutched a balled-up piece of red paper in it’s paws.
Justin had a moment of communion with both the cat and its capturer. He’d also crumpled up the holiday lights contest notice. His made it to the recycling bin, which was still sat the end of his driveway, because he’d been too embarrassed to go back outside for it after the woman next door waved to him while he stood there in the freezing cold in his pajamas like an ass.
He only hoped the trash bin wouldn’t be too lonely in the garage until morning.
His casual observations had gone on long enough to seem creepy; he was about to walk away when a gust of wind snatched the cat’s prize away. It unfolded like a sitcom sequence.
The paper danced out of the cat’s paws. The cat grabbed at it, wriggling loose from the woman and her scarf. The wind tossed the flyer toward his house, cat in hot pursuit. Paper and cat rolled into…his still-open garage.
He heard his father’s rack of paint cans go over, a metallic cacophony followed by a more solid crash, punctuated by the clacking of the woman next door’s heels on his driveway. He rushed down the hallway that led to the mud room and the garage. Her voice, unexpectedly melodious considering her string of creative profanity, met him when he burst into the garage.
The cold–and the sheer volume of destruction created by ten pounds of feline–greeted him like punch in the chest.
“Marvin, you fucking monster. Come out from under the goddamn car.”
She sounded like a princess; her voice was soft and low with a touch of accent he couldn’t place. A righteously pissed off and embarrassed princess, judging by the fierce red stain on her cheeks and the angry glint in her eyes.
“I’ve got some tuna in the kitchen. Maybe that would help?” Or maybe say hello first, you idiot?
Her attention snapped to him. “I’m so sorry. He’s not adjusting well to the new house, and I–“
Whatever she was, she was also completely overwhelmed, he realized, as she burst into wet, noisy tears and buried her face in her hands.
Justin stood there, feeling helpless and foolish while this stranger wept in his garage. When the cadence of her crying slowed, he fell back on humor. “It doesn’t have to be tuna. I’ve got three-day-old soba noodles in the fridge.”
She hiccuped a laugh and swiped at her eyes. Her cat chose that moment to saunter out from under his car and twine around his slippered feet. Justin scooped the up the cat. The demon settled into his arms and purred noisily.
“Goddamn Marvin,” she said, her voice raw and shaky from the tears. She stared at the dozen paint cans and several study plastic storage tubs scattered across the empty garage bay. “I’ll go home and change, then I’ll clean up this mess.”
Justin scratched the cat’s chin. He was a rather magnificent beast, with paws like half dollars and bobcat ears. “Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s just my dad’s old paint cans, and,” he squinted at his mother’s handwriting on the plastic bin, “the Christmas lights.”
“I can’t just leave all this…Marvin isn’t a bad cat–“
“He’s just misunderstood,” Justin said.
“He’s just…” She smiled, a blotchy, puffy-eyed smile, and Justin saw what he hadn’t noticed before. She was lovely. Not rock-your-world, too-hot-to-touch stunning, but quietly lovely.
“Tell you what,” Justin said, hardly believing his own ears. “You go get changed, and we’ll clean all this up together. Meanwhile, I’m going to have a man-to-man conversation with Marvin here over cold shrimp soba noodles about how to behave around the woman who feeds you.”