Stephanie finished her Christmas decorating by putting the ceramic tree decorated with lighthouses on the dining room table and plugging it in. She also started it with the same act. Newly moved to the small south shore community in Massachusetts, she’d never had her own Christmas decorations. She’d always gone home for Christmas.
The lighthouse ornaments glowed softly, lifting the sadness which had been weighing her down for most of the week just the tiniest bit. Without a tall spruce in the living room, it didn’t feel much like Christmas. No brightly wrapped packages underneath in anticipation of Christmas morning, no stockings hung for the children, even though the “children” were all over twenty now. Her mother hadn’t given up the tradition, and finding the small treats in her stocking first thing Christmas morning always made Stephanie feel like a child again, filled with joy and wonder.
Her memories reminded her she’d received a box from home in the mail this past week. She’d put it in her closet so she wouldn’t be tempted to open it too soon and spoil the surprise. Tonight was Christmas Eve, certainly not too soon to open it, even if her mother had neglected to wrap whatever was inside.
Her mother had a habit of doing things like that. Thrifty, to say the least, she rarely spent money when it wasn’t necessary. There had been years when Christmas presents had been wrapped in the Sunday comics because they didn’t always have money for wrapping paper or ribbons.
She fetched the box and pried it open, the mailing tape strong and resisting. She needn’t have worried. Inside nestled a brightly wrapped package swathed in bubble wrap. There was even a small stocking filled with candy and nuts and a few little trinkets. She hung the stocking with a thumbtack on the half wall that separated the kitchen and dining room. They’d been very clear about not putting holes in the walls in the lease. Surely that little hole wouldn’t cause a deduction from the security deposit on the apartment when she moved out.
She put the package, an article of clothing from the size and shape of it, next to her ceramic tree. There, that was a little better. She thought she might check out the sales on lights and ornaments after Christmas so, if she were still here next year, she’d be able to do a little more to create a holiday feel.
Stephanie hoped it would feel a bit more like Christmas after she attended services this evening. She’d spied out a little church, not too far away, on her daily commute, and made a point to slow down and read the sign out front. A traditional carol service was scheduled at eight o’clock, and she thought she’d take a walk down tonight, see if it felt like the kind of church she might join.
Thinking of carols reminded her how quiet it was. She turned on the radio and searched the dial for a station playing Christmas music. She thought she’d found one, but it turned out to be holiday music, the comical, commercial tunes that had gained so much popularity over the traditional carols. Ah! She finally found one playing “Joy to the World.”
She poured herself a glass of eggnog and raised it to the tree. “Merry Christmas,” she said softly, fighting not to cry from loneliness. Taking a sip, she went over to the window to look outside. A light snow fell, turning the brick buildings with colored lights twinkling in the windows into a Christmas card.
Day was already fading into evening. The falling snow glittered in the light of the street lamps, coating the parking lot in fairy dust. She should walk down to the mailboxes and get her mail. Maybe there’d be more Christmas cards to hang on the half wall, make it seem more like Christmas.
After rinsing her glass and putting on her coat, Stephanie opened her front door.
A small gray cat, about half-past being a kitten, sat on her doorstep, looking up at her with pleading eyes.
“Well, what are you doing here?”
The cat bumped her shoe with its nose. “Mew.”
The snowflakes sparkled on its fur. One landed on the cat’s nose, startling the animal, which shook its head as if to shake it off, but the flake had already melted.
Stephanie looked left and right, searching for an owner who might be outside looking for the little cat, but the evening was empty and silent except for the swishing of the falling snow.
All thoughts of the mail had fled. She couldn’t leave the little guy out in this weather. She picked up the cat and took it inside, closed the door. A red leather collar was fastened around its neck. After scratching its head for a few seconds, the kitten started to purr and snuggled up against her body. She sat with the cat in her lap and turned the collar around, trying to see if there was any identifying information, the owner’s phone number or address. A cat with a collar had to have an owner.
She found the metal plate. All it said was Boots. At least she knew the cat’s name. She had to stop calling the cat “it,’ so she eased Boots over onto his back and scratched his tummy. Because now she could see Boots was a “he.” She could also see the white on all four paws that had given him his name.
“Hello, Boots,” Stephanie said. “What are you doing outside on a night like this?”
She knew pets were often implanted with microchips which identified the owner, but she wasn’t quite sure how to get the information out of them. Or whether Boots even had one.
“Now what’s wrong?”
Stephanie sighed. It seemed as if she’d have to figure that out for herself. “Are you hungry?”
She’d never had a cat and wasn’t quite sure what she could feed him. She did have some cans of tuna stockpiled, bought on sale to stretch her budget. But maybe she ought to start small. She poured some milk in a bowl. The cat nosed it, determined it was in the category he’d learned was food, and started lapping it up.
While the cat was eating, Stephanie searched online for a way to help her find the cat’s owner. After finding the phone number for the animal shelter, she dialed it on her cell phone. And got a message. “The County Animal Shelter is closed for the holidays. We will reopen on December 26th at eight o’clock. Happy Holidays!”
Two days away. She tried several vets but got similar messages there, the only difference being most of the vets were going to be closed until after New Year’s.
The cat finished drinking the milk and licked his paw, then wiped it across his face. Boots repeated the gesture several times. He was obviously a fastidious sort of cat.
“I guess we’re going to spend Christmas together, Boots.”
The cat paused in his face-washing and looked up at the sound of his name. “Mew.”
She glanced up at the kitchen clock. It was getting late. If she was going to make the Christmas Eve service at that church, she’d better get going.
But first she covered the bathroom floor in newspaper and put the bowl of milk inside. If she was going to have a roommate for the holiday she’d have to try to find a store where she could buy litter and cat food on her way home.
“Sorry, Boots.” She locked the cat in the bathroom. She didn’t want to be surprised by a present on the carpet when she got home.
* * *
Stephanie hummed “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” along with the organ and trumpets as she exited the sanctuary. The service had been one of traditional carols and readings, not at all strange as she had feared it might be. The beauty of singing “Silent Night” by candlelight had flowed through her, warming her heart.
The minister had shaken her hand warmly and invited her to come back to the church on Sunday. She just might do that. It was time for her to have more in her life than her job and a lonely apartment.
A bulletin board hung on the wall in the narthex, and Stephanie paused to see what kinds of notices were posted, what kinds of activities and classes took place at the church. An assortment of index cards and flyers covered most of the space. There were sign-up sheets for a Bible study starting in January and a potluck supper. A calendar listing when the choir met to rehearse, the altar guild schedule, and various committee meetings. There was even a book group starting up. It looked like the church had plenty of activities, things she could get involved with, maybe meet a few women and find some friends. She missed having friends. Christmas Day loomed long and empty without friends to share it with.
While she read the assortment of notices, a young man stepped up beside her and scanned the bulletin board. Pulling an index card from his pocket, he took one of the push pins from the edge of the board and stuck the card in one of the few empty spaces. His hands trembled a little, and Stephanie turned her head to look at him. His face was wreathed not in Christmas cheer, but in sadness. Stephanie’s heart broke for him. She knew that holidays were often hard on people, particularly if they were alone. Like she was this year. But she’d gotten used to being alone over time, told herself she didn’t mind. Besides, it was her first year in Massachusetts. Next year she’d certainly have people to spend the holiday with. Or maybe she’d be able to take a trip home, have Christmas with her family. After all, that was the way you were supposed to spend Christmas, with family.
She watched the young man head for the door, his shoulders hunched as a cold blast of air blew inside and whirled snowflakes around him. She wondered what kind of notice he’d posted.
Turning back to the bulletin board, her eyes widened, and her mouth dropped open as she read the card he’d posted there:
LOST: Gray cat with white paws. Answers to the name Boots. Please call Jack at 781-555-6720.
She almost ran out the door. “Excuse me!” she cried after the retreating back. Now she did run, trying not to slip on the snow-covered walk. She hoped she could reach him before he left in his car.
“Hello! Hello!” She was catching up with him, but not fast enough. “Jack!”
At the sound of his name, he stopped and turned to face her. “Were you speaking to me?”
Stephanie paused to catch her breath. She was panting like a steam locomotive, the cold air turning her breath into clouds of vapor. Icy spears stabbed her lungs. He waited for her, his hands shoved in the pockets of his tan suede jacket. It had fringe on it, like a cowboy’s and, like a cowboy, he was wearing jeans and boots. He shifted from one foot to the other.
“Yes,” she eked out. She breathed in deeply, ignoring the ice spear that accompanied the breath, and let it out slowly. “I think I have your cat.”
The anguished look that had been on his face the whole time she’d known him—a minute?—was replaced by one of hope. “You do?”
People flowed around them on their way out of the church, an eddy in the pool of humanity. A few called out greetings to Jack, and several wished her a Merry Christmas as they passed by.
She nodded in response to his question. Her breath came more easily now, allowing her to explain. “I found him on my doorstep when I started to go out for the mail.”
The snowflakes dusted his hair like glitter and crinkles formed around his eyes as he smiled. He had a nice smile. “Why don’t you come with me and see?”
“Of course. I’ll follow you in my truck.”
She started to giggle.
A puzzled look crossed his face. “What’s so funny?”
“Sorry. I just got this image of you rolling slowly down the street, following me as I walked on the sidewalk.”
He smiled. “Oh. In that case, why don’t you come in the truck with me?”
Stephanie debated with herself for a moment. It wasn’t necessarily wise to get in a vehicle with a stranger. In fact, it sounded like a perfect scenario for something bad to happen. She cocked her head. He looked safe enough. Besides, she’d met him at a Christmas Eve service. At church.
Sometimes you had to take a leap of faith. Sometimes you had to trust that not all strangers were evil. Even so, her heartbeat hammered in her chest. “Okay.”
She followed him to the parking lot where a big white truck sat isolated from the few cars still there. He unlocked the door and opened it for her. A gentleman. In Stephanie’s recent memory, most guys got in on the driver’s side and leaned over to open the other door, expecting the woman to just hop in herself.
He got into the truck and started the engine, then blew on his hands to warm them. “Let’s get the heat going while I brush off the windshield.” He turned and pulled a snow brush from behind her seat, then got out and started clearing the windows. By the time he finished, warm air was coming through the vents.
“Ready?” He turned toward her with a grin, then put the truck in gear and pulled out into the street. “Which way?”
“Left,” Stephanie said. “I live in the Edgewater Apartments.”
He turned toward her, his eyes wide. “So do I.”
“You seem surprised. How far did you think Boots roamed?”
“You never know.” Jack took the next turn. “He sneaks out much too often. Once I got a call from some people on the other side of town.”
“How did they know to call you? You didn’t put your phone number on his tag.” The last part came out somewhat accusingly, and Stephanie hoped Jack hadn’t noticed.
Annoyance crossed his face. “I did. Only he keeps managing to get that collar off from around his neck. The one with only his name on it mostly stays on him. I figured some collar was better than no collar.” The angry tone left his voice on the last sentence, replaced with wistfulness.
Jack continued. “Those people, the ones across town, were nice enough to take him to the animal shelter, which scanned him for the chip.”
“I’m glad you got him back,” she said.
Jack turned into the apartment complex. “What apartment number do you live in?”
He smiled at her. “Well, it looks like Boots didn’t get very far this time. I’m in B118.”
“Neighbors.” She smiled back at him.
“And a pretty one, too.”
She blushed at the compliment as Jack pulled into one of the numbered parking spots. He turned off the engine and said, “Let’s go get that bad boy.”
Stephanie opened the door and was inside and headed toward the bathroom before she realized Jack hadn’t followed her in. She turned around and saw him standing on the doormat. “Come in,” she said.
“I don’t want to track all over your floor,” Jack said.
Stephanie laughed. “I just did. Besides, do you think it’s better to let in the cold?”
“I guess not.” Jack stepped inside and closed the door behind him. “Nice place.”
Stephanie looked around the apartment, wondering what he saw that she didn’t. “It’s like every other one-bedroom apartment in the complex…”
Jack smiled and nodded. “That’s why it’s nice. It looks like mine. Only I have a bigger Christmas tree.”
“It would be hard not to.” She laughed.
A mewing sound came from behind the closed bathroom door. “Sounds like Boots knows you’re here. You’d better come get him.”
Stephanie led the way down the hall and opened the bathroom door slowly, watching to make sure she didn’t smack the little cat with it. He sidled around the door and headed straight for her ankles, winding himself around and around as he rubbed up against her.
“It doesn’t look like I’m the one he missed,” Jack said.
“I think maybe he’s mad at you for letting him get out into the cold, cruel world.” She bent down and picked Boots up, cradling him under her chin. The kitten immediately started purring.
“He likes you,” Jack said. He reached over and scratched Boots behind the ears. Boots gave him a look as if to say I’ve got someone here, thank you very much.
“And I like him.”
They stood quietly for a moment. It was so nice to have someone to talk to. Stephanie didn’t want him to go. “Would you like some eggnog?”
“That would be great,” Jack said.
“Okay, you’ll have to take your cat back then so I can pour a couple of glasses.” She held Boots out toward his owner, who took him and held him in the crook of his arm. There was a momentary pause in the purring on the transfer, but the cat resumed as soon as he was comfortable again.
Stephanie pulled two festive holiday cups from the cupboard and filled them with eggnog. Another impulse purchase she hadn’t been able to resist, despite not being sure she’d have any use for them. Now she was glad she’d bought them. She sprinkled a little nutmeg on top of the eggnog and carried the cups to the dining room table. “Why don’t you have a seat?”
Jack sat and cuddled Boots in his lap. Stephanie hurried back to the kitchen and opened the package of pfeffernusse cookies she’d been saving and put some on a plate. She sat down across from Jack, and before she could start a conversation, he lifted up his cup in a toast. “Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to you, too.” Stephanie raised the mug painted in holly sprigs and lightly touched it to Jack’s. They each took a sip. “Have a cookie.”
Jack picked one up and took a small bite. Boots raised himself from Jack’s lap and sniffed the piece remaining in his hand. Jack laughed. “Boots think anything remotely resembling food is for him.” He quickly ate the rest of the cookie.
“I’m not sure he’d like pfeffernusse,” Stephanie said. She picked up one of the bite-sized cookies and popped it in her mouth.
“You have a sugar mustache.” Jack reached across the table and lightly brushed the powdered sugar from her lips.
An innocent, yet intimate gesture. Stephanie felt her face warm, along with her heart.
“So how long have you lived here?” Jack asked casually. “I don’t remember seeing you around before.”
“Just a few weeks. I relocated for a job opportunity.”
The question, while an obvious response to her statement, seemed like more. It sounded like Jack was truly interested. Stephanie found herself telling him first about the move, then her life in the Midwest before coming to Massachusetts. Jack told her that he’d always lived in the Boston area. This year his family had decided to celebrate Christmas at a Vermont ski lodge. He hadn’t been able to join them because of end-of-year job responsibilities. The conversation flowed easily as if they’d known one another for years. In between sharing tidbits from their lives, they drank eggnog and ate pfeffernusse.
Jack reached toward the plate where the cookies had been and his eyebrows rose in surprise. “When did we finish the cookies?”
“I have no idea,” Stephanie said. “How long have we been talking?” She glanced at her watch and saw that they’d been chatting for over two hours. “Oh, my! I really ought to let you—and Boots—go home.”
Boots had been contentedly sleeping and drowsily raised his head at the sound of his name. Stephanie burst out laughing and Jack smiled in return.
“I suppose,” Jack said, sounding as if he didn’t want to leave. “I really have enjoyed talking to you.” His face turned thoughtful. “You know, I bought a rib roast for Christmas dinner. I’m not sure why, other than it’s what my mom always served. It’s much too big for one person, even too big for one person and a cat with a huge appetite. Would you like to join me tomorrow?”
Stephanie’s heart felt lighter. She hadn’t been looking forward to spending Christmas Day alone. Now it looked like she wouldn’t have to. “I’d love to.”
Their eyes met across the table in an intimate gaze filled with promise. It was a little scary. They’d only just met. What if… She didn’t get to complete the thought.
“Mew.” Boots head-butted his master’s chest and the two of them laughed nervously.
“I guess that’s my hint to take him home,” Jack said. He rose, put his coat on, and walked to the door, Stephanie following behind him. He turned and said, “See you tomorrow.”
Stephanie nodded, not sure she could get words past the happy lump in her throat.
“Merry Christmas, Stephanie.”
“Merry Christmas, Jack.”