A soft, cold drizzle provides a dark backdrop for all the merry lights decorating the homes and lawns along our Christmas Eve drive from Vance Township to my parents’ house in Marsdale, Pennsylvania. Hopes for a white Christmas diminished with each weather forecast over the past week. Precipitation? Yes. But with highs in the upper forties and lows just above freezing, Santa would need to replace his sleigh’s runners with wheels.
I’m not looking forward to the Baronick family gathering. I even offered—okay, begged—to work the holiday, but Chief of Police Adams wouldn’t hear of it. “You worked Thanksgiving,” he said.
To avoid the Baronick family carving of the turkey too, but I didn’t mention that.
“I won’t have my junior officer stuck working all the holidays,” the chief said with a smile.
I’d have been happy if he’d ordered Seth to work instead. He didn’t. The chief and everyone else in the Vance Township Police Department knows Officer Seth Metzger and I are dating. So does my brother, Monongahela County Police Detective Wayne Baronick. And so do my mom and dad. Hence the problem. If Seth and I both show up, we’re going to be pelted with questions and comments.
“Seth, did you get Abby a ring for Christmas?” “When are you going to make an honest woman of her?” “When are you two getting married?” And the real kicker, usually coming from my mom: “When are you going to give us grandchildren?”
At least that last one would also include a dirty look shot in Wayne’s direction. My brother, Mr. Love-’em-and-leave-’em, will have his own accusatory gauntlet to navigate, since he’s already hit the Big 4-0 without bringing home a wife, a fiancée, or even a steady girlfriend.
The last girlfriend he exposed to our parents was five years ago, and she broke up with him before the evening was over.
Seth assures me he can handle the familial interrogation. He is a cop, after all, and can give as good as he gets. The problem is my dad is retired law enforcement. I grew up hearing how he made suspects break down in tears after being subjected to his questions.
It isn’t a suspect but my mom who’s in tears when we arrive. Not expected. And slightly terrifying. Especially since she’s standing on the front porch sobbing as we step out of Seth’s car.
I run to her. “Mom, what’s wrong? Is Dad okay?”
She waves the tissue she clutches. “Dad is fine. It’s Callie.”
“Your cat?” I imagine the sweet calico ball of fur choking on a turkey bone or having gotten hold of a toxic poinsettia, although Mom is ultra-cautious about such things.
Mom presses the tissue to her mouth and nods. “She’s gone.”
My heart breaks. “She’s dead?”
I feel a little more relieved. I also know Wayne is in serious hot water. Nothing but coal in his stocking this year. “I’m sure she’s fine. She’s probably hiding in the bushes nearby.”
“She’s scared to death, poor thing. You know I never let her outside.”
I knew. The last time Mom had an indoor/outdoor cat, it got hit on the road. She swore she’d never let her kitties roam free again. “Where’s Dad? And Wayne?”
“Out canvassing the neighborhood.” Mom hasn’t lived the bulk of her life surrounded by cops without picking up some of the terminology.
“We can put up fliers in the morning,” I say.
More wailing. “Morning? Oh, no. I can’t bear the thought of poor Callie outside all night. Did I tell you? We’ve been hearing coyotes howling out in the woods.”
She had not. This isn’t good.
Seth touches my shoulder. “Let’s get our packages inside, and then we can start looking for her.”
I thought Mom was going to hug him. “That would be wonderful. Thank you.”
While Seth places our gifts under the tree, I tell Mom to bring Callie’s litterbox and food outside. I’ve heard that lost cats will return if they pick up on their own scent. If nothing else, it gives Mom something to do.
Seth grabs a pair of flashlights from the car, then he and I leave Mom bundled in a parka and sitting on the front porch, keeping a watchful eye on the litterbox. She dumped a can of stinky tuna in Callie’s bowl and has it sitting out there too. I don’t know which smells worse, the fish or the litter. Every few minutes, Mom calls out, “Here kitty, kitty!”
“I gather you heard,” Dad says, sounding downtrodden. He loves Callie almost as much as Mom does.
I look at Wayne. Part of me wants to harangue him for being the cause of all this, but one glimpse at his face changes my mind. He clearly feels guilty enough without me adding to it.
“What can we do to help?” Seth asks.
“We’ve knocked on every door between here and home,” Dad says. “Not everyone is home tonight. Those who are, haven’t seen her but are keeping an eye out.”
Wayne points back toward our family’s house. “Why don’t you two take the street going the other way. Dad and I will split up. I’ll take the next block this way.” He points to the right. “Dad, you take the one that way.” He points to the left.
We backtrack, calling for Callie and shining flashlights in bushes and under cars.
Most of the neighbors on whose doors we knock are concerned and promise to let us know if they hear or see Mom’s cat. A few even put on coats and come outside to search around their own lawns.
Only one neighbor, in the house diagonally across the road from Mom and Dad’s place, refuses to answer the door. Mr. Porter has always been stand-offish, even when I still lived at home. Tonight, I know he’s in there. The lights are on. A car sits in front of the closed garage. I hear voices before I knock. They fall silent after. When salesmen used to come to our door, Mom would whisper, “Pretend we’re not home.” I imagine Mr. Porter doing the same thing. Except Seth and I aren’t selling anything.
For the next several hours, we spend our Christmas Eve knocking on doors. Being told no one had seen or heard Mom’s cat. Wishing them happy holidays.
We finally converge back at Mom and Dad’s house. Mom has cried herself to exhaustion and announces she doesn’t feel like following our family tradition of opening gifts that night. She has already cooked a big meal but claims she isn’t hungry. After changing out of our wet clothes, Seth, Wayne, and I heat up the now cold food and serve it. We eat in glum silence with Mom jumping up every five minutes to run to the door, thinking she hears something. Whatever she hears isn’t Callie.
Normally, we would bid our farewells around midnight and head back to our own abodes. This year, Wayne and I decide we’ll spend the night and resume our search in the morning. Mom wants to sleep in the living room in case Callie scratches at the door. Since I knew neither she nor Dad would be happy about Seth and I bunking in my old room, the two of us agree to keep watch—me on the couch, him on the recliner—so Mom can at least attempt to sleep in her bed.
It’s a long night. I don’t think any of us got any rest. Before daybreak, I put on coffee. Wayne shuffles downstairs and looks around. “Did she come home?”
“No,” I say.
“I got up and checked every half hour or so, but the litterbox hasn’t been touched,” Seth reports.
“You did?” I ask, looking at my handsome boyfriend.
He sips his coffee and nods. “It started snowing around three.”
I hadn’t heard him moving around. I guess I did get some sleep after all. I really love this guy. I look outside, surprised to see a coating of white. “I didn’t think we were supposed to have a white Christmas.”
“Right now, all I want for Christmas is for Mom’s cat to come home,” Wayne says.
Sufficiently caffeinated, the three of us bundle up and head out. Soft flakes drift through the air. Any other Christmas morning, I’d be enchanted by the snow globe effect. Today, I can only think about how it might help us track the cat.
We circle the house, looking for pawprints. Nothing. We spread out and search the neighborhood, watching as lights come on in one house and then another. I imagine children waking up, eager to see what Santa delivered. Neighboring homes filled with joy and laughter.
After an hour, we return home. No Callie. No pawprints. Nothing.
Dark-circled eyes offer proof I’d been right about Mom getting no sleep. She looks horrible.
Wayne and Seth shoo us out of the kitchen and cook a big breakfast of eggs and bacon. I figure Wayne is paying penance for letting Callie escape. Seth has nothing to make up for but is just being Seth.
We eat in silence, listening for mews outside. Despite Mom’s protests, Dad insists we open gifts. I confess, I’ve been dreading the whole gift thing. I anticipate Mom and Dad—especially Dad—needling Seth about giving me a ring. They don’t know he and I have already talked about it and agree we aren’t ready yet. I know he loves me, and he knows I love him. For now, that’s enough.
Around eleven o’clock, the doorbell rings. Mom jumps up, as if Callie might have somehow figured out how to reach the button. Needless to say, it isn’t the cat. Even more surprising, it’s Mr. Porter, the neighbor who refused to come to the door last night. Usually, he looks like he’s been sucking on a lemon. This morning, though, his expression hints more toward lemonade although lemonade that still needs more sugar.
“Craig,” Mom says without much enthusiasm. “Merry Christmas.”
Mr. Porter has a first name? I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before.
He doesn’t return the greeting. Instead, he says, “I need you to come over to my house.” Without waiting, he turns and walks away.
We exchange puzzled looks. He has never invited us to his home before. Judging from Mom and Dad’s faces, they’re as stunned as I am.
We grab our coats on the way out. I spot Mom checking out the unmarred litterbox. Mr. Porter waits on his stoop for us to catch up. He pauses, his hand on the knob.
“You may not be aware, but I have a granddaughter,” he says, his voice gruff. “She’s six.” He wipes a hand across his mouth. When he continues, his voice is even gruffer. “And she’s dying.”
Mom gasps. “I’m so sorry.”
“It’s been rough on all of us. Bailey—that’s her name—has been holding up well, but her oncologist gave her and her mom the news earlier this week. The treatment isn’t working. He gave her maybe two more months.”
Seth slips an arm around my shoulders, and I realize my lashes are damp. What a horrible thing to learn especially at Christmastime.
Which is almost word for word what my mom says to him.
He nods in thanks. His gaze shifts to me and Seth. “I heard you knocking on my door last night, looking for your cat. I’m sorry I didn’t answer.”
Of course, I understand and would’ve said so, but he turns his back to us and steps through his front door.
“Please. Come in.”
Although the exterior of the house lacks the lights and garland of many on the block, the foyer looks like Christmas has exploded all over the place. Greenery, red ribbons, and twinkle lights decorate the banister, the doorframes, the chandelier, and a mirror. Bubbly little-girl giggles float from the room to the right, which is the one Mr. Porter leads us into. A tall tree adorned by every imaginable ornament sits in one corner. Unwrapped gifts surround it. But what immediately draws my attention—and Mom’s too, I’m certain—is the frail child seated on the floor with Callie nestled in her lap.
Mom lets out a little cry. For a moment, I think she’s going to run over and snatch up her cat. I think Mr. Porter fears the same thing. The little girl looks up at us with robin’s-egg blue eyes and the most beautiful smile I have ever seen.
“Santa brought me a kitty,” she says. “I asked and asked for one, but Mama told me Santa couldn’t carry kitties in his sleigh.” The girl looks at the young woman seated in a plush armchair. “Mama was wrong.”
Mr. Porter clears his throat. “This is my granddaughter, Bailey. That’s my daughter, Sherry.” He gestures at us. “These are my neighbors.” He gives her a knowing lift of an eyebrow. “The ones I told you about.”
Translation. The ones who were looking for their lost cat.
Sherry stands and crosses to us, her hand extended. Mom shakes it and introduces all of us.
“Can we talk?” Sherry asks, tilting her head toward the foyer.
“Yes, of course,” Mom says.
Sherry glances at her father. “Dad, can you keep an eye on Bailey please.”
With the little girl petting a very content-looking Callie and Mr. Porter claiming a seat on his sofa, the four of us and Sherry retreat to the entryway.
She folds her hands as if in prayer. “Last evening, I went to the door to get something from my car and your cat was on the stoop. She just strolled in as if she owned the place. Bailey spotted her and smiled for the first time in a month. It’s been so long since I’ve seen her like this. Happy. Like she was before…”
Mom pulls her into a hug. I notice Dad’s eyes glistening. Or maybe it’s the tearful veil I’m gazing through.
When Mom releases her, Sherry sighs. “I know she’s your cat. I’m sorry we didn’t answer the door last night and return her then.”
Mom dismisses the apology with the flutter of a hand. “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s fine. I’m so glad she’s indoors and safe.”
“Bailey and I will be going home after dinner. I know it’s asking a lot, but if you wouldn’t mind letting her keep your cat until then, I would be ever so grateful.”
Mom leans to the side, looking beyond Sherry and into the room where Callie basks in Bailey’s adoration. Bringing her eyes to meet Sherry’s, Mom asks, “Where are you from?”
“Grantsville,” Sherry replies. “Near Harrisburg.”
Mom purses her lips. I almost hear her thinking. “Your house…or apartment…are you allowed to have pets?”
“Oh, yes. And I know what you’re going to say. Bailey has wanted a cat so badly, I should’ve gotten her one. But bringing a kitten into our home right now wouldn’t be fair. So much of my attention has to be on Bailey’s health. There are doctor’s appointments and treatments. I wouldn’t be able to properly care for a young cat.”
“What about an older one? The shelters are full of them.”
“I realize that, but it’s the same issue. Finding an adult cat with the right temperament can be a challenge, and I simply can’t tackle any more challenges right now.” Sherry smiles sadly and turns to watch her young daughter. “Your cat is an absolute doll. I wish I could be guaranteed to find one just like her.”
Mom’s gaze follows Sherry’s. “She’s one in a million for sure.”
I know then and there what my mother’s going to do next.
Mom takes both Sherry’s hands. “You’ll need Callie’s carrier for the drive home. I’ll bring it, her food, some of her toys, and her favorite bed over for you.”
Sherry’s eyes widen. “I’m sorry…what?”
Mom turns her so they’re both watching Bailey and Callie. “I’ve always thought Callie should be a support animal. You know, I should take her to hospitals to visit and comfort the patients. She’d be a natural. Your little girl needs Callie right now. She’s low maintenance, well behaved, absolutely no trouble at all.” Mom gives Sherry a gentle shake. “Look at them. I don’t think Callie slipped out last night merely because the door was left open. I think she was drawn over here. To where she knew she was needed.” Mom smiles. “Or maybe Santa really did have a hand in it.”
“But…she’s your cat. I couldn’t possibly—”
“Borrow her? Of course, you can. What you can’t do is expect Bailey to understand why she can’t keep her new kitty. I’m loaning her to you. Indefinitely.” Mom gives Sherry a hug. “You might need her as a support animal too.”
Sherry draws back and studies Mom’s face as if searching for any hint of second thoughts. I know my mother. There are none.
I step in. “You might as well accept Mom’s offer. Trust me. If you don’t, she will get in the car with Callie and follow you back to Grantsville.”
Sherry chokes a laugh and gives me a big smile before turning it on Mom. “I don’t know what to say. Thank you. We’ll take the best care of her. You said her name is Callie?”
“Yes, but if Bailey wants to call her something else, I’m sure Callie won’t mind. As for taking good care of her, I know you will.” Mom again glances at the little girl and her cat. “I know Callie will take good care of you too.”
Back at my parents’ house, Mom merrily put together a feast of leftovers from last night’s somber dinner, humming Christmas carols the entire time. I feared Callie’s absence might continue to cast a pall over the Baronick clan. Such is not the case. Every so often I glimpse a sheen of tears in Mom’s eyes, but the smile never leaves her face.
Although Mom’s generosity and the memory of the smile on that sick little girl’s face definitely bathe our family in the Christmas spirit, one thing continues to concern me. As Seth loads his car with our gifts, I draw Mom aside.
“Are you going to be all right?” I ask. “I mean, what if Sherry decides to keep Callie even after Bailey…” I can’t say the word.
“Honey, don’t you remember what we’ve always told you? Never loan something you can’t afford to lose. If Sherry doesn’t return Callie, it’ll be because she needs her more than I do.”
I throw my arms
around my mom and hold her tight. “You are an amazing woman,” I whisper. “I’m
proud to be your daughter.”
We stay like that, sobbing into each other’s hair for quite a while. I notice Wayne come around the corner, spot us, and do a U-turn.
I haven’t mentioned anything.
“When are you and Seth going to get married and give me grandchildren?”