Jenny looked through the peephole in her front door. The day's mail had arrived. She opened the door, and the wind from the north hit her like Winter's answer to a thermonuclear blast. She took a moment to look up and down her street. To the west, the letter carrier was crossing to the other side, with the southbound bus on Highland Street passing behind him in the opposite direction.
To the east, there was that homeless man going through the garbage cans again. He was picking out beer cans, dropping them on the ground, and stomping them flat, then stuffing them, along with others, into a plastic grocery sack. As always, he wore mostly shabby military issue, and looked like a tattered remnant of the losing side of some long war. It occurred to her that perhaps, in a sense, he was.
The cold wind was starting to make her eyes water. She grabbed her mail and rushed back inside. She sat at her desk to look at it, and Edith, her feline companion for close to two decades, came up to rub against her legs. Jenny reached down and scratched Edith between her ears, and the cat purred quietly.
Junk mail. Another ad for the local cable service. A late Christmas card from her brother. Junk mail from Ed McMahon telling her she just might be a winner. Yeah, right, she thought, tossing it in the trash. And the alimony check from Art.
The last half of her marriage had been not so much a commitment as a sentence for both of them. For five years they had lived as separately as possible in the same apartment. She had resigned herself to the idea that it was her cross to bear, but Art had decided he wanted a pardon.
Art had filed for divorce less than two weeks after the lease had been signed for the new house, and she had moved into it alone, except for Edith. At the hearing she had said she didn't want any alimony, but Art had insisted, telling the judge she needed it, and why, and the judge had agreed. When the first check arrived, Jenny donated it all to a no-kill animal shelter, then had to resort to selling her blood in order to make it through the month. By the time the second check came, she had admitted to herself that he was right. She commemorated that occasion with the purchase of a gallon of vodka, and had used up almost half of it before she realized that it wouldn't help. The rest remained in a back corner of her pantry.
So it was just Jenny here now, and Edith, the only true friend she felt she had. And the ghost of the ended marriage in Art's financial support. He was paying the alimony, the payments on the house, and for her psychotherapy as well. But, other than that, it was her place. Art had never lived there, so there were no nagging memories attached to the place itself. Jenny liked it here, and left only when she had a specific reason to do so. Dr. Bruford said she was mildly agoraphobic. She disagreed. Nothing -phobic about it, she just liked it better this way. She had her furry best friend, what did she need any social contacts for? So she could let her guard down, and get hurt again, like she had with Art? This was better. It had worked for Emily Dickinson, it could work for her.
Jenny glanced out her front window. The homeless man was rooting through her trash can now. Unconsciously transferring her frustration with Art to the nearest male target, she rushed to the door and opened it. He had picked out an empty Sprite can and was about to crush it.
"Hey, you! Get out of there, you bum," Jenny shouted at him. He recoiled slightly, as if he had been struck, and moved on to her neighbor's trash, leaving her Sprite can behind.
Jenny had deposited the alimony check, and was waiting at the bus stop outside the bank for the bus to her therapy session. The homeless man was across the street, and a bit north, petting and talking to a stray grey cat with white feet and a white spot on its chest. A bit farther north, Jenny saw old Mrs. Taylor leaving the McDonald's where she always had lunch. She was carrying a small take-out bag, and she gave it to the man as she passed him. He accepted it with the same cringing reaction he had when Jenny had yelled at him earlier. Just like me and the alimony, Jenny thought. He took the food from the sack. A simple hamburger and small order of fries. He tore several pieces from the meat and gave them to the cat before eating any himself. Yes. Just like me and Art's checks, she thought.
"...but watch out for slick spots on bridges and overpasses during rush hour tomorrow morning."
"That's right, Bob. When we return, the latest on contract negotiations for goalie..."
Jenny stroked Edith under her chin. "I'll bet you're glad you're an indoor-only cat tonight, aren't you, little smiley-cat?" She took one more sip from her can of Sprite, finishing it. "Sorry, baby. Gotta get up a minute." She took the empty can to the kitchen, started to throw it into the waste basket, then stopped. Several cans of cat food were still in a plastic grocery bag on the counter. She removed them, put them in the usual spot in the pantry, and hung the bag on a doorknob by its loops, then put the soft drink can in the bag.
Not much mail today. The phone bill and a couple of catalogs. Jenny put the bill on her desk and sat down on the couch to look at the catalogs. At first, Edith curled up in her lap, but after a few minutes she jumped off and sat on the front windowsill, looking outside. Jenny glanced up and saw him, picking through the trash next door. She went to the kitchen and got the bag which now had a dozen or so cans in it, then to her front porch.
"Hey, uh, hey there," she called out. He cringed again and started to move on. "No, it's OK. Here," she said, offering the bag. He said nothing, and made no move either toward her or away, but his eyes remained locked on hers. She set the bag on the steps and went back inside, watching through the peephole as he cautiously collected the bag, then moved on.
Trash collection day again. Jenny had her television on, but it wasn't really what she was watching. Eventually she spotted him, about halfway up the block. She went to her kitchen and quickly fixed a sliced turkey and cheese sandwich, then put it in a brown paper bag along with a banana and a Snickers, and a pair of those little one-size-fits-all stretch gloves from the drug store, then put it on her front steps next to the sack of empty cans.
Later that day, when returning from her therapy session, she found a slip of paper in her mailbox. It was a receipt from a recycling center a few blocks away, with "Thank you" written on the back.
The phone was ringing. Not an everyday occurrence. And too often it was...
"Jennifer, it's me."
"Hello, Art. What is it?"
"Just checking in, seeing how you're getting along. I didn't interrupt anything, did I?"
"No, Art." And you knew that, too, didn't you? "I'm fine."
"You staying warm enough there?"
"How about your therapy? You know, I could send a driver to take you so you wouldn't have to take the buses across town. At least while it's so cold out. No problem, really."
"That's not necessary, Art." Can't you let me do anything for myself?
"Well, OK. But if there's anything you need, just call."
"I would..." ...sooner roast on a spit.
"All right, then. Take care, Jen."
"I will, Art. Bye."
"Paper or plastic?"
"I brought my own this time," Jenny answered, handing her canvas bag to the bagger.
"Even better, ma'am," the checker replied. That's $3.70."
As Jenny handed over a five-dollar bill, she spotted the man over in the line for the express lane. He had two rolls, bagels probably, and a can of something. Her interest was piqued.
"Four... and five. Thank you, and come again."
Jenny left the store and waited at the bus stop. The bus came almost immediately and she waved it off. She was waiting for something else.
Soon the man came out of the store and crossed the street, then headed north. Jenny followed on the west side until a convenient opportunity to cross came, and even then she maintained a discreet distance.
The man reached Wally's 24-Hour Cafe and headed behind it. Jenny went behind the convenience store two doors south of Wally's and watched from the cover of the dumpster.
The man took off the belt around his old field jacket and Jenny could see that under it he was wearing one of those photographer's vests with lots of pockets. He pulled a Swiss Army knife from one of the pockets and started to open the can, whistling a long, high-pitched note as he did so. He finished opening the can, which Jenny now recognized as a 14 ounce can of the cheap cat food - beef and liver variety. He took a piece of paper from another pocket, cleaned the can opener blade of his knife, retracted it, and pulled out the knife blade, then started cutting one of his bagels in half. He continued the shrill whistling.
Then Jenny saw movement in the alley. It was the grey stray she'd seen him feeding before, and a smaller black and white cat followed it.
"Galahad! Percival! Come on, guys," he called. As the two cats approached, he scooped food from the can with his knife blade, dropping it on the ground near where he was sitting. The cats started in on it eagerly. As they ate, he took more cat food from the can and spread it on his bagel, put the halves back together, and then he started eating too. After giving the cats maybe half of the can's contents, he put the can back in the plastic bag with his other bagel and put them in one of the larger pockets of his vest. Then he cleaned his knife blade, closed it, and put it away too. All the while he continued talking to the cats, and occasionally petting them.
It was still just as cold out, but there was very little wind, so Jenny decided to put on a sweater and a light jacket and wait on her front porch. She brought the current sack of empty cans, and last year's Yellow Pages so she wouldn't have to sit directly on the cold concrete steps. Her timing was pretty good. He'd just started at the other end of the block. When he'd progressed about halfway down, he tied his bag shut and hung it from a hook on his belt, then started on a new bag. Today must be a good day for aluminum, she thought.
Soon he'd reached her trash can. He looked up a moment and saw her, then opened her trash can. She picked up her sack of cans and held it out, shaking it, so he could hear the rustle of plastic and the dull rattle of aluminum. He looked up, but didn't move.
"Well?" she said. He just kept looking at her. "Come on, it's all right." He hesitated a moment, then approached her. She handed him the bag.
He took it, and took a can out, and was about to drop it on the walkway. "Do you mind?" he asked. Jenny shook her head. He dropped the can, stomped on it to flatten it, and put it in his bag which already had a few flattened cans in it. Then he went on, repeating the process with the other cans.
"So, do you do this all day?" she asked him. She couldn't see much of what he looked like because of his beard. But there was something about his eyes...
"Usually 'till about two or three. Recycling place closes at four-thirty." Now that he was this close he wasn't looking as directly at her.
"Try to get some food, if I get enough money for it."
"What do you eat?"
"Whatever. Depends on what I can get."
"Bagels and cat food?"
He stopped crushing the cans and looked right at her a moment. "Whatever," he replied, and went back to flattening the last few cans.
She noticed a stick, maybe a yard long, hung through a loop on his belt. She pointed at it and said, "What's that, your mighty sword?"
"Yeah, right. Mostly, I use it for dumpster fishing. Lots of cans in dumpsters."
"Why aren't you wearing the gloves I gave you?"
"I don't wear them while I'm, uh... gleaning. They'd get too dirty. They really help the rest of the time, though. Especially at night. Thank you."
"Where do you go at night, anyway? Is there a shelter or something around here?"
"Not too far away, but it's not as good a place to stay as you'd think. Considering some of what goes on there, I'd rather take my chances outside. There are places that aren't too bad if you aren't too picky. I've learned a lot from the stray cats. Most important thing is to stay out of the rain, and the wind. There's a few places that actually provide some heat, too, if you know what to look for. Well, I'd better get moving. Gotta stay ahead of the trash trucks, you know."
"Hey, it's been, uh, nice talking. My name's Jenny, by the way. What's yours?"
"Elliot. Call me Elliot."
"OK, Elliot. Look, if it's ever really cold out or anything, and you need someplace safe..."
"You don't have to... I mean, I can get along well enough."
"I mean it, Elliot. Doesn't even have to be... Why don't you come by later, after you finish with your cans? I could make dinner for you."
"Really, you don't... Are you sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure. Around when do you think you can be back?"
"Look, I'm probably not very, uh, pleasant in an enclosed area."
"I understand. We can take care of that too. What time?"
"Well... I guess about... Five? Five-thirty, maybe?"
"I'll be expecting you, Elliot. Later, then?"
"Yes. And thank you, Jenny. Again."
"Kindness? Sarah, Art doesn't do a damned thing out of kindness. Everything is calculated for its effect on his image, his status, his career."
"Yet you married him knowing that."
"I didn't know that then."
"And he married you, knowing what you're like."
"He miscalculated. We were both students when we got married. I was an undergrad, and he was going for his Master's. The way I dress, my beliefs and attitudes - it all fit in with the image he wanted. I thought he loved me, but he just liked the way I... accessorized him. Then when he got his degree, and his job, and became a Corporate Man, he changed his image. No more jeans and sweatshirts. Suits in public, L.L. Bean and Lacoste at home. And he expected the same of me. The jeans and sweaters I was wearing when he proposed weren't acceptable any more. He was the Corporate Man now, and I had to become the Corporate Wife. He didn't love me, he just loved the image. And when I wouldn't change to match his change in status, well, that's when it all started falling apart."
"Just over the way you dress?"
"No, other things too. Attitudes, politics. When he got that job he became a Republican practically overnight. Or when he wanted to get a dog."
"Yeah. After I found out I was infertile. Said he wanted a dog. A big one, a German Shepherd or maybe a Wiemaraner. I told him that Edith wouldn't be able to deal with that. You know what he said? He said that the dog would be better for his damned image and that maybe we'd have to get rid of the cat. Sarah, I'd had Edie since before I even met him. She's been a part of my life, and just about the only consistently good part, for longer than I've known anybody except my family. She is family. And he wanted me to get rid of her, just like that. Does that sound like someone who loved me, or even cared about me at all?"
"No, Jenny, I suppose not. Yet he decided not to get the dog after all, right?"
"Only after I told him that the only way he'd get rid of Edith would be to get rid of me, too. I guess he figured that a divorce would be too detrimental to his corporate image at that point."
"What do you think changed his mind about that?"
"I suppose it was my breakdown. My uncorporate ways, the fact that we weren't sleeping together - he seemed to be able to deal with all of that as long as he could keep it hidden. But when I was hospitalized - that made it obvious that there were problems in our marriage. Or, more to the point, in his marriage. That made me just too damaging to his corporate image. And finding out that I couldn't give him children certainly hadn't helped any either. So he decided to get rid of me, just like he wanted to get rid of Edie."
"Yet he's still supporting you. You said you weren't asking for anything, but he volunteered it, talked the judge into it. Why would he do that if he didn't at least still care about you some?"
"His big ego. To show he's so magnanimous that even though we can't carry on a marriage, he can still afford to, well, keep me. To show that even though I'm not his wife any more, I'm still one of his possessions, sort of. An image-enhancing charity, sort of like donating for the upkeep of an animal at the zoo. I imagine it's a reasonable tax write-off for him too."
"I suppose there is that. Hmm... It's awfully dark out, I wonder what time... Hmm... Quarter to five.We've gone way over. But I guess we did have a lot to talk about today. There won't be any charge for the extra time."
"Art's paying for it, Sarah. Go ahead and charge him. But I really have to get going. Usual time next week?"
"Certainly. You have plans for this evening?"
"Well, I did, sort of. Maybe not any more. No big deal. See you next week."
With the late start, heavy traffic, and a missed transfer at the Washington Avenue loop, it was 6:15 before Jenny got home. Snow flurries were starting. At first there appeared to be no sign of Elliot, but then she noticed something in her mailbox - a silk rose. She remembered seeing some a few days ago at a nearby thrift shop. Even at their prices, it had probably cost him a day's food, at least. So he had come, waited a while, and left, figuring she'd forgotten, or maybe changed her mind, but leaving his gift for her behind.
She unlocked her door and went in. Edith trotted up to her and rubbed against her legs. They both went to the kitchen and Jenny started preparing Edith's dinner. He's probably sharing a can of cat food with those strays right now, Jenny thought. Of course! That's exactly where he'd be now! "Sorry, Edie, I'll be back real soon," she told Edith after she had fed her. Then she went back outside, locked her door again, and headed up Highland toward Wally's. She cut behind the convenience store and headed up the alley. This is a really bright thing for a woman to be doing after dark, she thought.
Just before she reached the area behind Wally's, she saw two small dark shapes bound across the alley and away. Then she heard a noise behind her.
"Elliot? Is that you?" she asked.
"Your purse, bitch. Hand it over."
It was not Elliot. She turned to face the boy. "I'm not carrying a purse."
He was maybe sixteen. She heard the ringing of steel - a butterfly knife.
"Well, you gonna pay toll, one way or another."
Then another voice behind him. "I don't think so. Leave the lady alone." The voice was Elliot's, but it was different somehow. A tone of command that she had not heard before.
The boy turned to face him. "You stay outta this, man, or you bleed too."
Again, the threatening jingle of the boy's knife, but then a movement Jenny just barely saw, and the knife flew away and into the opening of a storm sewer. Another strike, and the boy fell to his knees, his hands at his face.
"My eyes! I can't see!"
Elliot lifted the boy's chin with the end of his stick. "You will, when the bleeding stops. Listen, boy. You will not tell your friends about this seeking revenge. They'll only laugh at you for letting an old bum get the best of you. Speak to no one of this and neither will we, and your reputation's intact. Understand?"
The boy nodded. "And you will harbor no thought of revenge, not against me, nor against this lady. Do you understand?" The boy nodded again. "Swear it."
The boy said nothing.
Elliot put the end of his stick at the boy's throat. "Swear it, or I will make sure this lady's safe from you, right here and now."
"I swear! I swear!"
Elliot held the stick there for a moment, then slipped it back into its place at his belt. He took a paper napkin from one of his pockets and folded it. Kneeling in front of the boy, he pressed it to the wound on the boy's forehead and held it there until the bleeding stopped.
"There. Can you see well enough now?"
The boy nodded. Elliot reached into another pocket and pulled out a dollar and a few coins.
"If you really need money, this is all I have." He put the money in the boy's hand. "Take it and go. And never bother this lady again."
The boy stepped back slowly, keeping his eyes on Elliot.
"Go!" Elliot shouted. It was the first he had actually raised his voice. The boy ran from the alley. Elliot turned back to Jenny.
"He'll come looking for you now, you know," Jenny said.
"No. He won't. He swore and he meant it. Otherwise I wouldn't have let him go."
"Your mighty sword. You weren't kidding."
"I didn't call it that. You did." His voice was back to normal now.
"So I did. You're right."
"Jenny, why did you come here? It's really not safe for... "
"I'm sorry. I had an appointment downtown and it ran longer than usual, and I missed the bus I usually take and... It's actually... well, I wouldn't call it warm, but it isn't that cold here."
"It's the exhaust from Wally's kitchen. You're right. It's not exactly warm, but it's just enough of a difference sometimes. One of the things I learned from Galahad."
"Galahad? One of those cats?"
"Yes. The grey one. I call the other one Percival. Galahad's pretty smart. Very streetwise."
"I guess so. Well, anyway, I didn't want you to think I'd changed my mind about dinner, and all."
"But you didn't have to..."
"I wanted to, Elliot. Come on now. You can get cleaned up while I'm cooking, OK?"
Back at her house, she unlocked the door, and they went inside. She picked up the silk rose which she had left on a small table near the stairs.
"It was nice of you to bring me this, Elliot. But you shouldn't have. You could probably..."
"I wanted to, Jenny."
She looked at him a moment, then said, "Thank you. It was very sweet of you." She took his jacket and hung it on a hook on the wall near the door. "The bathroom's up the stairs. I'll bring you some towels, and a bathrobe. I'll put your clothes in the washer and run it after you're done in the shower, OK? You'll find soap in there, and shampoo. Anything else you think you'll need?"
"Well... yes. A comb and a pair of scissors so I can trim my beard so I don't look so much like Rasputin. And a sheet of newspaper so it doesn't make a mess."
"Sure, no problem."
Jenny gathered the things Elliot had requested and took them upstairs. She found him emptying the contents of his pockets into a paper sack, perhaps the one Mrs. Taylor had given him almost two weeks ago.
"Listen, don't forget to turn on the exhaust fan when you start your shower, OK? The last person who lived here must have put up those tacky mirrored tiles on the ceiling, but not too well. If the room gets steamy they start drooping. I've been meaning to take them out, but I don't have anything to replace them with yet."
Jenny brought him the towels and the bathrobe, then went back downstairs to the kitchen. She had prepared a vegetable stew before leaving for her therapy session, and now it just needed to be heated. She put it on the burner, and stirred it occasionally. After a while it occurred to her that it might be a bit cold in the house for someone wearing only a bathrobe. She went up to her bedroom and picked out a sweatshirt, some jeans, and a pair of heavy socks, hoping they'd fit Elliot well enough until his clothes were washed and dried. She went across the hall and poked her head into the bathroom.
"Elliot, I've got some clothes for you to put on until yours are ready. I hope they aren't too small."
"OK. Thank you."
Jenny glanced at the mirrored tiles above the shower before closing the door. She hadn't expected him to be as thin as he was. If anything, her jeans would be a little large on him.
Returning to the kitchen, Jenny gave the stew another stir, then got out a loaf of French bread. She cut off a few slices, buttered them and sprinkled on garlic powder, and put them in the toaster oven. She felt Edith rubbing against her legs.
"Yeah, I know, Edie. A new person. Guess I won't be seeing much of you tonight until he's gone, will I?"
Edith rubbed against Jenny's legs a few more times, then wandered into another room. Jenny heard the shower stop, and soon afterward, Elliot's footsteps on the stairs. She filled two bowls with the stew, and put them on the kitchen table. Elliot came into the kitchen. Now that his beard was trimmed, she could see what his face was like. No matinee idol, but not bad looking either. What was it she saw in his eyes? Sadness, loneliness, certainly, but no bitterness or anger. Jenny brought two glasses of water to the table and she and Elliot sat down and began eating. Elliot ate eagerly. Jenny realized that he was probably quite out of the habit of table conversation.
"So," she began. "Do you like it?"
"Someone in my position likes anything you don't have to pick fuzz off of. But yes, it's very good."
"Do you mind garlic? I made some garlic bread. It should be just about ready."
"That sounds great. I like garlic. Actually, it's... Well, hello, pretty one." Edith had come in and was rubbing against Elliot's legs.
"Is that Edie? I can't believe it. She always hides if any strangers come in. Sometimes she won't come out for hours, even after they leave. She hasn't been that friendly with anyone else that quickly in... I don't think she ever has." Jenny stood up. "Excuse me for a minute. I'll get your things washing."
Jenny took his clothes to the basement and put them in her washer. On her way back to the kitchen, she looked out the front window and saw that the snow was coming down much harder now. It had covered the grass of the front yard, and was starting to cover the roadway on her street as well.
"Elliot, the snow's looking pretty bad out there. I don't want to be sending you back out into it when your things are dry."
"That's all right, Jenny. I know how to deal with it."
"No, Elliot. It's no trouble. I can bring down some pillows and blankets, and you can sleep down here on the couch. I don't know where you usually sleep, but I'd be willing to bet this is nicer. Then I can make you some breakfast in the morning, and coffee, or tea, or something, OK?" She noticed that Edie was rubbing against his legs again. "And Edie likes you. She'd like you to stay too."
Elliot smiled. "Well, I certainly can't disappoint her, then, can I? All right. Thank you. Thank you, too, Edie."
The two cats slipped into the garage just behind the car. The man had found an indoor place to spend the night, so they figured they'd do the same. They waited in the shadows for the engine to stop, then hid under the car itself until the driver got out and closed the garage door behind her.
The black and white cat started to climb up next to the radiator, but the grey one slapped at his flank. That place is too dangerous.
They hopped up to the car's hood, which would still be warm for a while from the residual heat of the engine. The black and white cat sat with his paws tucked in underneath him. The grey cat stretched out, putting as much of himself as possible in contact with the metal while it was still warm.
His clothes were dry. Jenny took them from the dryer, folded them, and brought them up. She had been downstairs only a couple of minutes, but he was already sound asleep. She went upstairs and came back with a pillow and a blanket. She lifted his head gently and slipped the pillow under it. She spread the blanket over him, and as she tucked it around his shoulders, her hand strayed to his cheek and lingered there a moment.
Then she went upstairs to her bedroom, took off her sweater and jeans, turned off the light, and got into bed as Edith watched her from the chair by the window. "Come on, baby," she called softly to the cat, who jumped onto the bed and snuggled into the warmth behind her knees.
The room was bright with the sunlight coming through the windows, having reflected off the snow outside. Jenny awoke and reached behind her to pet... nothing. For the first time since her breakdown, Edith wasn't there when she woke up. Jenny put her jeans and sweater back on and went downstairs. Elliot was still sleeping, and Edith sat on his hip, looking like a small contented sphynx. The cat stretched, stepped over to Elliot's face, and licked his cheek. Jenny went into the kitchen and started heating some water in the microwave, then came back to find Elliot petting Edith.
"That's amazing," Jenny said to him. "She's usually pretty shy around strangers. She really likes you, though. I've got some water heating. There's coffee if you don't mind instant, or tea if you'd prefer that."
He followed her back into the kitchen, bringing his multi-pocketed vest and the paper bag with the things from its pockets. "Coffee's fine. Thanks. Wow. Did you see the snow?"
"Yeah. Looks like four or five inches."
"Do you have a snow shovel? Or any kind of shovel?"
"I think there might be one downstairs."
"I could clear your sidewalk for you..."
"You don't have to do that."
"Somebody does. Might as well be me. Besides, I was thinking if you had a shovel I could use, I could maybe clear the walks for a few of the other houses around here and, you know..."
"A bit harder to find cans after a snowfall?"
"I'll check after breakfast. If I don't have one, I can ask Mrs. Taylor across the street. What do you like in your coffee?"
"I'm pretty flexible about that."
"I should have guessed." Jenny opened the pantry. "There's sugar or honey. I don't have any milk or cream. I have soy milk. That might work."
"Just some sugar will do for the coffee."
"How about pancakes to eat? Don't tell me I don't have to go to the trouble. I already did. I make a huge batch every couple of weeks and freeze 'em, then heat 'em up in the microwave."
As he watched her preparing the breakfast, Elliot took a good look at her for the first time. She was tall, maybe five-nine or -ten, but must have been self-conscious about that because she stood slightly hunched over. There was the beginning of a dowager's hump. He had thought at first that she was in her early or mid-twenties. The way she acted and dressed, and the way the house was decorated seemed to indicate someone of that age. But now Elliot noticed the lines around her eyes, and the touch of grey in the hair at her temples. She was closer to his age than he had thought. But none of it, not the lines, nor the grey, nor the effects of her posture, changed the first impression he was only now admitting he had felt. She was, in his eyes, beautiful. She always had been, and always would be.
Jenny noticed that he'd brought in the paper bag. "What all is in there, anyway, if you don't mind my asking?"
all I have left to show for forty some-odd years of
He took the items out of the bag, one by one, and put them
places in the vest. "Some scrap paper and a ballpoint pen. A
magnifying glass. This army surplus first-aid bandage pouch
my... what he laughingly referred to as 'documentation.' Old
card, all my driver's licenses for the past twenty years or
some ancient student I.D.s. And a bunch of other extraneous
just to fill it out. This is my most valuable possession. My
Army knife. A Victorinox Swiss Champ. It was the top of the
I bought it, what, four, five years ago, back when... back
this," he said, taking out a pin-backed photo button, "this
is my most prized possession." He handed it to her. The
was of a cat with blue eyes and white feet, with Siamese
tabby patterning. Its eyes seemed to have the same sad
"She's beautiful. Is it a she?"
"Yes, she was. My one reliably faithful friend for... so many years. But when I ended up on the streets... she'd been an indoor cat for so long. I tried to take care of her the best I could, but..." He put the button in the pocket closest to his heart.
"I've had Edith for seventeen years now," Jenny told him. "She's been there for me through a lot of things. A lot of things. I think I know, sort of, how you feel. Everything else that's gone wrong... she's the one thing I can always count on. I don't know what I'd do without her."
He looked up and their eyes met for a moment. Jenny saw the tears disappearing into his beard.
The microwave beeper went off. "Well, anyway," Jenny said, "the water's ready."
Jenny had found a snow shovel in her basement, and Elliot had cleared her sidewalk, then Mrs. Taylor's, and was working on another a few doors up the block. The mail had come, and Jenny was looking at one of the day's handful of catalogs. She looked up and noticed Edith sitting on the windowsill, rubbing her cheek against the glass. Jenny looked closer and saw the grey cat, Galahad, sitting in the corresponding spot outside.
"Is that your new friend, Edie?" Jenny asked.
Edith turned to face Jenny and squeezed her eyes shut briefly. No. An old friend. A very old friend.Then Edith turned her attentions back to the cat outside.
When Galahad jumped from the windowsill, Jenny suspected that Elliot was coming back. She looked out the window and saw the cat run just past him, then turn around and walk beside him. A moment later, Percival bounded out from under a bush and joined them. Jenny smiled and went into the kitchen.
When Elliot reached her porch she was waiting with an open can of cat food, a spoon, and a small dish. "Do they like this kind?" she asked. "I'd invite them in, but..."
"I don't think they'd come," Elliot said. "They're pretty wary of most people." The two cats stayed at the sidewalk.
"We're old friends. Yes, they'll consider this a major feast." Elliot started to go out to where the cats were.
"Will they eat on the porch if I go inside?"
"I think so. Thank you, Jenny."
Jenny went back in, expecting Edith to be in a snit of jealousy with a can of her food going to other cats. To her surprise, she found Edith watching from the window, purring. Percival started in immediately. Galahad reached up and seemed to be trying to pull Elliot's hand down to the food.
"No, Galahad. Go ahead. I'll be all right," she heard Elliot say to him, gently guiding him back to the food. Galahad took a few bites then looked up at Elliot again. "Yes, I think so too," he said to the cat. "A very nice lady."
Jenny had forgotten how much of a sweat someone can work up shoveling snow. Again, she let Elliot take a shower while she prepared an early dinner, and left him a pair of her jeans and a sweatshirt to put on afterwards. All through the meal, Edith went back and forth between them, first rubbing against her legs, then his, then hers again. When they had finished eating and she had put the dishes in the washer, they went into the other room to talk. Jenny started to sit in the armchair across from the couch, but Edith ran and jumped into it. The cat seemed to glare at her.
"I guess she wants me to sit over there with you," Jenny said as she crossed back to the couch.
They talked. They talked about her cat, and his cat-friends, and the things he'd learned from them and others about living on the streets. She talked a little about what her life was like, at least since she'd been living in the house. They talked about music, (Her tastes tended to run to the sort of things VH-1 played, he enjoyed at least a little of just about any style, though he hadn't heard much of anything really recent.) movies, (He, of course, hadn't seen any less than five years old.) and art. (She claimed that toys were a form of art. He was the first person who agreed with her.) Sooner than either of them realized, it was late.
"I can't believe what time it is," Jenny said. "I'm off to bed." She started toward the stairs, paused a moment, then turned and said, "Come up with me."
"Certainly. No reason you should have to bring down the pillow and..."
"No, Elliot," she said, taking his hand. "Come up with me."
Elliot met her gaze for a moment then said, "Jenny, you don't have to do this."
"You don't have to either. But I want you to. If it's what you want. Is it?"
For a second he wondered what he should say to answer her. The answer didn't require words. He kissed her, at first lightly. She put her arms around him and kissed back. He felt her tongue brush against his lips and he welcomed it, and embraced her as well. With his chest against hers, she could feel his heart beating. Had it beat this hard when he was shoveling snow earlier in the day? Somehow she knew that it had not. When this long first kiss ended he then kissed her cheek, then the side of her neck. As his face moved against hers she felt wetness near her mouth. She reached her tongue out to taste it. It was salty. She backed away slightly and held his face in her hands, then kissed away the tears by each of his eyes. Jenny smiled at him, took his hand again, and led him up the stairs.
When Jenny awakened, Elliot was still asleep. Edith was between them, her paws on Jenny's shoulder and her tail curled around Elliot's arm. Edith faced her and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment. Then Jenny heard a woman's voice in her mind. Good girl, the voice said. Jenny got out of bed carefully so that the movement wouldn't wake Elliot. She put on her robe and went downstairs to start coffee and feed Edith.
The private line rang and Art took the headset. "Yes?"
"Kaye, sir. He stayed overnight again. I believe he stayed upstairs this time." On the books, Kaye was listed as a driver, but his real occupation was soldier. He was particularly good at reconnaissance, and could correctly interpret the slightest information - the movement of shadows, subtle sounds that others wouldn't even notice. "When he comes out I could... discourage him."
"No, Kaye. Just observe. The Old Man says there's to be no interference whatsoever." Art didn't even think to tell Kaye to remain unseen. With Kaye, it didn't need to be said. Only the best of the best stood a chance of spotting him.
Elliot and Jenny stopped at the door of the thrift shop. He used the scissors on his Swiss Army knife to cut the price tag from his new hat, and twisted the stems of three silk roses into a garland which he placed on Jenny's head, over her knitted cap. Then he put his hat on, and they left the store hand in hand.
"That's an odd hat," she said.
"'Cap, Cold Weather, Insulating, Helmet Liner,'" he replied, quoting the tag stitched inside it. "I'm amazed to find a solid green one. I think they just make them in woodland camo now. Maybe winter camo too. But I haven't seen a plain green one in years. Onward?"
"Onward. Want to go to one of my favorite places? It's called 'Shoemaker's Elf.' It's another block or so down Highland."
"I've seen it, but I've never been inside."
"It's wonderful. The owner - her name's Vivian - she's a little strange, but very interesting."
Shoemaker's Elf was a boutique, three steps down from street level, low ceiling, trees and fog painted on the walls inside. They sold t-shirts and women's clothing, candles and incense, jewelry, a few books, and a small assortment of knives, mostly more decorative than functional.
"Not exactly appropriate for today's weather, is it?" Jenny held out an ankle-length tie-died organdy skirt.
"Very pretty though."
"Did you see the knives? They've even had swords in here on occasion. In case you'd ever want to trade up, you know," Jenny joked.
"Interesting idea, but not exactly street legal. Oh, Jenny, look at this! It's beautiful!"
"What? One of the knives?"
"No. That." In the display case next to the one with the knives was a ring, a silver claddagh with a red gemstone mounted in the heart."
"That is lovely," Jenny agreed. "And I prefer silver to gold. I don't know why, but I always have."
"In ancient cultures," Vivian offered, "the Celts, for example, gold was associated with the sun, and generally with the gods. Silver, on the other hand, was associated with the moon, and the goddesses. For the most part, a much gentler energy. And the garnet's for passion. Would you like to try it on?"
"May I? Thank you," Jenny replied. Vivian took the ring from the case and handed it to Jenny. Elliot noticed the price tag. It cost almost three times what he had earned the day before. Jenny tried the ring on several fingers. It fit best on the third finger of her left hand.
Vivian looked over at Elliot and raised one eyebrow. Elliot smiled slightly and nodded once, then gave an almost imperceptable shrug. Vivian turned back to Jenny, whose attention had been on the ring. Jenny removed it and handed it back.
"Don't you like it?" Vivian asked.
"I do, very much," Jenny answered, "but... not today."
"Later, maybe." As Vivian put the ring back, Elliot noticed her making a subtle gesture over the ring, and her equally subtle wink at him when she looked up.
After Jenny and Elliot left Shoemaker's Elf, they took the bus back up Highland, past Jenny's street and on to the grocery store where they bought food for themselves and the cats. As they left the store, Elliot saw a black BMW in the parking lot of the bank across the street. Its license plate read "VII." Elliot had seen it about a half-block up Highland when they were at the thrift shop, and again, parked at the corner of a side street, when they left Shoemaker's Elf. As they headed back toward Jenny's house, Elliot periodically looked in the windows of the various shops. Or at least appeared to. He was looking at the things reflected in the glass, or at things not in the center of his vision. The BMW had pulled out of the parking lot and headed up Highland, away from them, then turned onto a side street. A minute or two later, he saw it cross another side street ahead of them. He's good. He's really good, Elliot thought. If he'd been in a more nondescript car I might not have noticed him. Elliot decided not to say anything about this to Jenny. No need to worry her. He'd handle this alone, later.
After dinner, Jenny lit several candles and she and Elliot sat on the couch again. This time, instead of talking, they were content just to hold each other quietly, as Edith sat on the chair across from them. At one point, Edith stretched and yawned.
"Are we boring you, Smiley-Cat?" Jenny asked her.
That's part of her name. Edith Titania Amanda Joy Attabiya Smiley-Cat Drake. Douglas, not Drake. I'm not Drake any more, so she isn't either."
"Quite a name. I imagine there's significance to each part."
"Definitely. I took Edith from a sort of obscure old Joni Mitchell song."
"I think I know which one you mean. Is there, or was there a Kingpin?"
"No, but that's the right song. I'm impressed. Titania from the Queen of the Fairies in Shakespeare. Amanda because it means 'loved one,' Joy because she's always been the one thing I could count on to bring me that. Attabiya because that's the word that tabby was derived from. Smiley-Cat because of that mark on her head like the smile of a smiley-face, just above her typical tabby M-mark. Once, when she was about a year old, I took some flour on my little finger and put the smiley-face eyes on her. She was not amused. She sulked for almost a week. I can't blame her. I guess I thought at the time that it was cute. And Douglas because that's my name. Douglas we were, and Douglas we are again."
"Dark water. Douglas means dark water. Which sometimes symbolizes deep emotions. And things hidden."
"Things hidden, huh? Yeah, that's me."
"That could be both of us. It's most people, to some extent. But some more than others."
"And you arent curious about those hidden things? You don't ask me about them. You haven't even asked anything about my ex."
"I figure if and when you want to tell me, you will. And besides, you tell me more than you think. With your eyes, and the tone of your voice. Not the details, not events or names or dates, that sort of thing. But the feelings, the emotions. The pain and the joy. Both are lands I've traveled extensively, so to speak. Amanda Joy. I understand that completely."
"The cat on your button?"
"Hmmm." She snuggled deeper into his arms and he held her just a little tighter. "You never told me your last name, Elliot. Of course, I guess I never asked either."
"It's Lake. Symbolically, pretty much the same as yours."
"That's interesting. Quite a coincidence."
"Some people say there are no coincidences."
"That makes it even more interesting." Jenny turned her head to one side, and she could hear Elliot's heart beat. I love that sound, she thought. "Right now, I wish we could stay like this forever."
"So do I," Elliot told her. "But I'll have to get up a bit earlier tomorrow."
"I have to get back to the aluminum."
"Do you really have to do that?"
"I should, yes."
She turned around to face him and sat up. "You don't..." She undid a button on his shirt and kissed his chest where the shirt came open. "...have to..." She undid another button and kissed his chest again. "...go to sleep..." She did it once more. "...immediately..." She undid the last button and his shirt fell fully open. "...do you?"
"Not that immediately," he replied as he helped her take off her sweatshirt.
Elliot woke up first. He put on the jeans Jenny had given him to wear when she washed his clothes, then put his own camo trousers on over them. He looked around and soon found one of her knitted caps, which he stuffed into one of the thigh pockets. He put on his shirt, and then took a careful look out the front window. The black BMW was there, parked a few houses east, on the other side of the street. Then he went back over to the bed and sat on the edge. He gently stroked Jenny's hair and kissed her on the cheek. "Good morning, love," he said softly.
Jenny opened her eyes, stretched, then put her arms around his neck and rose up to kiss him. "Already dressed," she sighed. "Do you have time for some breakfast? Or at least some coffee?"
"Coffee. And maybe a bagel or a a couple of pieces of toast."
"You are going to have the rest of the frozen pancakes with me. Then I'll make some to freeze while you're out. You said before, you'd probably be done and back by five or so, right?"
"Probably sooner today. Not likely to be much out there this soon after a snow."
They ate breakfast, then after a long kiss, Elliot left, went to Highland, turned south, and doubled back up the alley. Before he got to the east end of Jenny's block, he took off his jacket, then his vest, and put the jacket back on. He took his hat off, put on Jenny's knitted cap, and put his own in a jacket pocket. He took off his camo trousers, rolled them up, and stuffed them in the back pocket of his vest, which he then put back on. He adjusted the cap so it covered his hair and some of his face. He opened the blade of his choice on his Swiss Army knife and put it in the same vest pocket as his right hand. Then he went around the corner, crossed to the north side of Jenny's street, and headed west again. The car was still there. It hadn't followed him.
Elliot came up behind the BMW and walked up to the driver's side. He knocked on the window and, with a slight rasp in his voice, said, "Hey buddy, ya got a light?"
With a hum, the electric window moved down. Elliot's hand shot inside and to the driver's neck.
"Don't even think about reaching for it. That goes for the backup, too. Keep your hands on the wheel. This is the saw blade, not the knife. I don't particularly want to hurt you, but if you force me... they'll never get your carotid back together. Understood?"
"Why are you following her? The law doesn't take kindly to stalkers, and I like them even less."
"I'm not stalking her. I'm paid to keep an eye on her. In fact, I've been ordered not to interfere with her, or you. Just observe."
"Why? Who's paying you?"
"If you're good enough to have spotted me, you're good enough to know I'm not going to answer that. I'll tell you this much. I'm not here because of you."
Elliot took the blade away from Kaye's neck and put it back in his pocket. "All right then. You do your job, but keep your distance. As long as you don't let her know you're there, I'm not going to point you out either. I don't want her upset by this."
"He doesn't either. I'll tell you one more thing. He's not your enemy. Not even a rival. I think he actually likes you. I don't understand that, but that's how it is."
"It's Drake, her ex-husband, isn't it?"
"I can't say."
"You don't have to."
Elliot stepped away from the car and the window went back up. He headed back east and then west again up the alley to the north, and back to Highland. He planned to gather a few pounds of cans from the dumpsters at Wally's and some of the bars on Highland, cash them in, and head back to Jenny.
Behind the third bar, the pain got bad enough that he could no longer pretend it wasn't there. For years he'd been collecting cans, stomping them flat so he could fit more in a bag and carry more of them at a time. He realized that the shock of that action traveled up his leg and was gradually and increasingly damaging his right hip. On most days, when he'd generally find only a handful of cans at a time, there was time to recover a bit between groups of cans. The pain came on slowly, and wasn't that bad by the end of the day. But day by day, that threshold decreased. And this morning, flattening a dozen or two at each bar, he could already feel his hip's rage at the abuse. It wasn't even ten-thirty yet. I'm not going to be able to do this much longer today, he thought. I'm not going to be able to do this much longer at all. Elliot tied the bag shut and started toward the recycling center, visibly limping.
Jenny had just put another group of wrapped pancakes in the freezer and was about to pour another in the skillet when Edith ran to the door. Elliot was back, and she let him in.
"I thought you'd be out a lot longer. I'm still making the... Elliot, you're limping! What happened?"
"I'll be all right. I just need to rest a bit."
"Well, you sit down right away. What do you do for that, heat or ice? I can never remember."
"Just rest will be enough, I think."
"You do that, then. Let me finish cooking what I already have mixed up, then I'll come sit with you." She went back into the kitchen.
Edith hopped up into Elliot's lap, and he took a closer look at the markings on her head. The one Jenny had described as a smile was a white crescent moon shape. Elliot was reminded of someone else who had a similar mark on her face. Morgaine? he thought, and a voice in his mind, a voice from another time, answered him.
Yes. I am.
"Blessed be, Lady of Avalon," he said, bowing his head the best he could to a cat sitting up in his lap. Edith held up her right paw and touched him on his forehead. He felt the blessing and the magic, every bit as strong as it had been centuries ago. "And is she...?" he asked.
"Did you say something?" Jenny called from the kitchen.
"Just talking to the cat," Elliot replied. He kissed Edith on the crescent mark on her face. She licked his nose once, then curled up in his lap, purring.
"He saw Kaye. Doesn't that tell you anything? Only the best of the best can spot him, didn't you say that, Wart?"
"I only thought that, Old Man."
"Said it, thought it. Same thing as far as I'm concerned. The best of the best. Who else could it be? Ah, now you see it. That's right. They belong together. Always did. Look at how quickly the wheel turned. You finalized the divorce just before Samhain, and they found each other just a bit after Yule."
"Then it'll work out for her this time? Without me in the way?"
"She has a chance. She'd be there now, if she'd learned her lesson with you. She'll have to learn that first, and with him this time."
"If that's the case, I feel sorry for him."
"Him? Eventually he'll remember that heartbreak is just another raw material to work with. Consider how she'll feel when she realizes what she's done."
The morning sun was just coming through the window when Elliot rolled onto his back. Jenny turned over and put her head on his chest. She listened to his heartbeat gradually slowing down.
"I'd forgotten what it's like to do that first thing in the morning," she said.
"I don't want you ever to forget again, Jenny."
They lay quietly for several minutes, savoring the sweet warmth of their bodies against each other. Edith, who had discreetly stepped off the bed and left the room when they started, now returned and curled up on the blanket that covered them, positioning herself so that she was touching both of them.
"Are you sure you have to go out again today?" Jenny asked.
"Not soon. But at some point. If I find any cans I'll try using my left foot. See if that works any better. There are one or two other things I need to do too."
"Why, that would be telling, my love. If it works out, you'll know soon enough."
"You, you... cryptic wretch," she said, hitting him with a pillow. "All right then. Later." She kissed him on the cheek. "Mmmmm. After all that exercise, I'm ready for breakfast. How about you?"
"Excellent. A man has to keep his strength up."
"Among other things."
Their breakfast was leisurely. By the time they had finished and Elliot had dressed for outdoors, it was nearly ten. Jenny saw him to the door and they shared a long embrace and a kiss.
"I shouldn't be away very long today," he promised.
"I'll be waiting. You know that."
They kissed once more and he went out the door. Jenny went to the couch, sat down, picked up the remote and turned on the television. It was a talk show.
"I think you'll all enjoy today's guest," the host said. "She first gained notice with her successful diet and exercise program, but she's now tackling the subject of the emotional matters that underlie not only weight problems, but so many of the problems we women struggle with, in her new book, End This Madness! I want you all to welcome her, Sallyyyyyyy... Powerrrrrrrrrs!"
"Thank you, Rachel. You know, so many women are just beset with troubles today. Troubles with their weight, with their jobs, their husbands and boyfriends. And it all boils down to one thing. They've lost control of their own lives. And the answer boils down to one thing as well. To take back control, and End! This! Madness!"
The audience roared. Jenny leaned forward and listened harder.
Elliot stood at the door of Shoemaker's Elf. He hadn't had anywhere near enough money before, and he had even less now. But there was one thing he did have. Perhaps there was a way...
"And you know, Rachel, most women go right from one relationship where she's defined by the man in control to another. First her father, then her boyfriend, her fiancee, her husband. Most women never learn who they are, really."
"I know. After my first divorce, it wasn't all that long 'till I was steady on with my second husband."
"See? And we all know how that worked out. I say, after a divorce a woman shouldn't get serious with any man for at least a year, no matter what. Take some time out. Play the field. Get to know who you are."
"No exceptions, Sally?"
"I don't think so."
"Well... there it is, girls. We have to take a break right now, but after that..."
Jenny got up and went to the kitchen. How could I be so gullible? she thought. She filled a glass with ice and water, then her eye strayed to that corner of the pantry. She poured half of the water out of the glass, then got the bottle of vodka and refilled the glass to the top. She took a big drink, and refilled it again. She went back to the couch, bringing the glass and the bottle with her.
"Yes. I'll buy used knives, sometimes," Vivian said. "What've you got?"
"This," Elliot answered, showing her his Swiss Army knife. "Swiss Champ. Victorinox. Top of their line a few years ago. I don't know about now."
"I couldn't give you a whole lot for that, used and all."
"I wasn't thinking of money. A trade..."
Vivian put her hand to her mouth and closed her eyes a moment, then looked at Elliot. "The ring," she said.
"That ring will always be here for you. For her. No one else will buy it. No one else will even look at it. I've made sure of that. You could come back at an easier time."
"It should be a sacrifice," Elliot said. And the time is now, I know it."
Vivien closed her eyes, sighed, and looked at Elliot again. "All right then. Deal."
The show was over and Jenny turned the television off. Damn, she thought, I'm doing it. Just what I'd promised myself I wouldn't do. It is madness and I have to stop it. Now.
Edith ran down the stairs and stopped in front of Jenny, meowing furiously. No! Don't do this! the cat/priestess thought. You'll ruin all I've worked for to... It's no use. She's so angry I can't get through to her. She's going to... Oh, Cerridwen, have mercy on his heart!
Jenny picked Edith up. "I know, baby, he fooled you too, didn't he? Well, I'll fix everything." Jenny tried to hold Edith like a baby, but the cat jumped from her arms and ran under the couch.
The door opened and Elliot entered, beaming. "Success!" he proclaimed.
"Is that so?" Jenny replied coldly, her back to him.
"Jenny, look. I got it. For you." He reached into a pocket and took out the ring.
Jenny turned around and looked at it, then looked up at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Jenny, my love, it means I want..."
"I don't care what you want! You wanna hear what I want? I want you to get out of here, that's what I want."
Elliot looked as if he'd been poleaxed. "Jenny, I... I don't understand. What..."
"I. Do. Not. Want. You. Here. Any. More. What part of that don't you understand?"
Elliot's eyes started to well up and he closed them. He took a deep breath. Released it slowly. And slowly opened his eyes, and looked straight at her. "Any of it," he finally replied. "But I'll go."
"Good," she snapped. "I'm going upstairs for a while. Don't be here when I come back down."
The door to her bedroom slammed. Edith crept out from under the couch and rubbed against Elliot's leg. He knelt and petted her. He heard Morgaine's voice in his mind again. I'm sorry. I tried.
"I know, " he replied. He petted Edith again and said, "I have to go. I have no choice." There was nothing to gather. Everything he owned he was carrying. And one thing that wasn't his.
Give it to me. I'll keep it somewhere safe. Elliot put the ring on the floor. Edith bent her head down and picked it up, then rubbed against Elliot's leg once more. Kiss me, old friend, as you did yesterday, one last time. Elliot kissed the cat on her crescent moon mark, then stood up, walked to the door, and left. One last time, she had said to him. He knew, somehow, that what she said was true.
Jenny fixed Edith's food. Usually the cat was right there as soon as she opened the can, but Edith had been coming more slowly every day since Elliot left, and today she didn't come at all. "Edith! Edith! Come on, he's been gone almost a week. You can't sulk forever. Edith?"
Jenny looked in the pantry and under the couch. No Edith. She started to climb the stairs when she saw Edith at the top, rolling slowly on her back, mouth wide open, eyes shut. "Edith! Oh, no!" Jenny ran to the phone, looked up a number in the book, and dialed.
The other end picked up. "Anderson Cab."
"I need a cab at 14 Denver, as soon as possible, please."
"It'll be... uh... at least a... an hour, lady. Probably more like an hour and a half."
"I don't have... oh, damn you!" Jenny slammed the phone down and started crying. There was only one other option, but...
But it was for Edith. She dialed Art's number.
"Art, it's me. It's Edith. She's sick. I need to get her to..."
"Hold on, Jen." The sound of some insipid arrangement of a Beatles song started. Though it was less than ten seconds, it seemed like an hour to her.
"God damn you, Art, Edith's sick..."
"...she could be dying, and you put me on hold? You..."
"JENNIFER!" She stopped, and Art continued. "Kaye's on his way. He could already be there. Get what you need and go. I'll meet you there as soon as I can."
"Thank you. And Art... I'm sorry for what I..."
"Don't worry about it. Go."
Jenny heard Kaye's knock at the door as she hung up.
Elliot had seen the old drunk before, the last time he'd resorted to the homeless shelter. The way he'd seen the man treated was one of the reasons he'd never gone there again. The man had a coat, but was still shivering.
"You need a hat, old fellow. What is it, thirty percent of your body heat you lose from your head. You need a hat. Here. Take mine."
Art arrived at the veterinarian's office. Kaye stood in the waiting room and Jenny was sitting in one of the examination rooms crying, while the receptionist tried to comfort her. The doctor came out.
"There wasn't much I could do. She was a very old cat. It was probably a stroke, but I couldn't say definitively without an autopsy."
"No," Art said. "That won't be necessary."
"We can dispose of the..."
"No. I think she'll want to... need to bury her herself."
"All right. I'll get something you can carry the body in."
Art walked over to Kaye. "Call Dr. Bruford," he said quietly. "Jen's going to need... something. At least tonight, maybe for a few days. I'll take her home. You pick up the prescription and meet us there."
Both cats held their noses high and spread their whiskers. Smell it, Percival? Do you feel it? It's going to be a bad one. Look at the people. They have no idea. You have to do it just like we did before. In when the door opens. When the engine stops, under the car until the person leaves. Then on top. Only on top. Never in by the engine. That's certain death, sooner or later. Remember that, Percival. Remember everything I've taught you.
Percival took a few steps toward the corner of the garage, then turned around. What about you, Galahad? If it's to be so bad...
I'll be needed out here tonight, friend. He will need me. He can't be left alone tonight, at any cost. He'll need you too, but later. Take care, Percival. Always take care.
Of course, brother. You too. I'll see you tomorrow then.
Take care, Percival.
And always remember what I've taught you.
The car came and Percival dashed in with it. The engine stopped, and as the garage door closed, Galahad could see Percival performing the maneuver just as he'd been taught.
Galahad moved on down the alley toward the place where he knew the man would stay tonight. As he passed a dumpster he saw light reflected in a pair of eyes. Both he and the other took a defensive stance at first, but then...
Pellinore! Is it you?
What are you doing unsheltered on a night like tonight?
I have a service to perform. One last. Why are you out?
I'm an old cat, and tired. It's time to go.
Too old and tired to go with purpose?
Not at all.
Join me then. With your help, I'm sure I'll succeed.
Elliot sat down under the exhaust fans at Wally's. He opened the zipper at the collar of his field jacket, pulled out the hood, and put it over his head. Not much protection, but in this place he figured it would be enough. He stretched out and went to sleep.
Galahad and Pellinore watched from the shadows. They watched as the wind steadily grew faster and colder. They watched as the sleet started to fall. When the lights went out and the fans stopped, they moved. Pellinore lay across Elliot's body and Galahad curled around his head.
Jenny walked on an island covered in apple trees and surrounded by a lake and fog. It was cool, but not unpleasantly so. Ahead of her, in a small clearing, she could see Edith. She was a cat, but she was somehow also a woman, about the same age as Jenny. Either way, the crescent moon shape on her face glowed softly. Jenny ran to her.
"Edith! Is it you?" Jenny called.
"It is indeed, Gwenhwyfar. But can you still not remember my name?"
"Morgaine." Jenny recalled the name, though she didn't yet understand how, or why. "Have you come back to me?"
"Only briefly. You have to understand. You must understand what you've done. What you've cast away."
"What I've... what do you mean?"
"Your knight. Your love. Lancelot came to you and you sent him out. Into the cold. And tonight that cold tries to kill him."
"You mean... he was... but she said at least a year."
"You took the counsel of an angry fool instead of listening to me, and it will cost a life. No, not mine. I'd done what I could with you. It was time to go. The king must have a son, and his son is my son. As it is, he'll be an old man by the time that child is born."
Jenny saw another cat approaching. One who was, at the same time, a young knight in grey armor with a white star on the breastplate, and white boots and gloves.
The cat/knight spoke. "My lady, it's time to go."
"Morgaine! Wait!" Jenny called. "Is there any way? Can I have a second chance?"
"This was your second chance, Gwenhwyfar. Considering how you handled it, do you think you deserve another? Lancelot still lives, but Galahad has done all he can. There isn't much time left."
The two cats, the priestess and the knight, disappeared into the mists.
"No!" Jenny cried. "Please! Wait!"
Jenny awoke with a start. Slowly her eyes focused. She looked at her alarm clock. 12:00... 12:00... 12:00... 12:00...
"Man, what a weird dream," she said to herself, wiping the tears from her eyes with a corner of the sheet. She got up, put on her robe, and went downstairs.
"Ah. You're up." Kaye was waiting in the armchair. "Are you feeling any better, Ms. Douglas? I'm sorry. Mr. Drake asked me to stay and make sure you were all right."
"I'm OK, considering. Are all the clocks off?"
"Power went out for a few hours last night. It's still out a little farther north. Anything I can get for you? Or do for you?"
"No. I'm just going to... oh, no, the dream! Kaye, I have to go out, right now." She quickly slipped on a pair of shoes, went to the door, and put her coat on over her robe.
"Is that a good idea, Ms. Douglas?"
"I have to. Right now. He could be dying out there."
"I'd better come with you."
"No... Yes. That might be a good idea. Maybe we should bring a blanket or something."
Kaye reached for an afghan that Edith would often sit on. As he picked it up, an object dropped to the floor and he picked it up. Jenny stepped over to see what it was.
It was the ring. As she took it she remembered more of the dream, if that was what it was, and started to cry. "Oh, no. Kaye, we have to hurry."
They went out and started up Highland. Half a block away from Wally's she saw the ambulance heading past them.
"No! Please, no!" she wailed.
Kaye took her by the shoulders. He didn't shake her, just held her. "We don't know anything yet. We don't know."
As they approached Wally's they could hear what the bystanders were saying.
"...froze to death, looks like. Some bum. And two cats."
"I dunno. They were doing CPR."
"EMTs gotta do that 'till they get 'em to the hospital and a doctor pronounces 'em. It's the law."
Jenny turned to Kaye. "Is that true? They wouldn't be doing that if he was... would they?"
Kaye didn't want to say it, but he couldn't lie to her. "That is the law, Ms. Douglas."
She collapsed in his arms. He held her up with one arm while he took out his cell phone and called Art, who arrived shortly after Kaye got her back home. They took her upstairs, gave her one of the sedatives, and made sure she went back to sleep.
Back downstairs, Art said to Kaye, "Call the Old Man. He has a few things for you to do."
"Doctor! Doctor! He's coming around!" The nurse looked at Elliot again, then backed away from the door as the doctor came in.
The doctor flashed a light first in Elliot's right eye, then his left. He looked at the readouts on the equipment next to the bed. "Doesn't look bad. You had a close call, Mr. Lake. We got your name from your driver's license. Expired, and out-of-state, but I figure the data's otherwise accurate."
"Call me Elliot."
"Well, Elliot, as I said, you had a pretty close call. Damn near froze to death. I don't think there'll be any serious frostbite damage to your extremities though. But, jeez, if it wasn't for those cats..."
"Those two cats. One over your trunk and the other around your head. If they hadn't been there, you'd be gone."
"How are the cats?"
"Dead, they tell me. They took the bullet for you, if you know what I mean. Can't imagine cats staying out in the open in weather like that. Usually a lot smarter than that. But you're lucky they did."
Galahad and Percival, Elliot thought. They knew exactly what they were doing.
"Anyway, Elliot, we've done about all we can for you. You can go. There's somebody in the waiting room for you."
"She? Not a she. Some guy. Said his name's Kaye."
When Elliot entered the waiting room Kaye stood up. Kaye had Elliot's field jacket and vest, and he helped Elliot into them. They went out to Kaye's car. He headed out on the Interstate.
"What'll you do now?" Kaye asked him.
"I've lost everything that matters to me here. I'll move on. Probably south. I've had enough of the cold."
"You're so sure about that?"
"That you've lost everything."
"Hmph. The Old Man said you'd say that."
"What old man?"
"The Old Man. Think. Remember. You know."
"The Merlin. He lives again too?"
"The king lives again. You and I live again. The Merlin lives on. Anyway, he told me to give you these." Kaye handed him a paper bag. Inside were a mallet and a Victorinox Swiss Champ, still in the box. "The Old Man says you're to use the mallet on your cans, and save your leg. And the knife, well, I know you know how to use that." Kaye smiled at Elliot. "He said that when you need to think something out, you take a long walk. Not unlike me, or Arthur. Except that a long walk for us is a few hours, but for you it's a few years. Try not to take so long. More people will miss you than you think."
"I'm not coming back."
"Yeah. The Old Man said you'd say that too. But some day... if you ever need anything, if you ever get in one of those 'you get one phone call' situations, remember this number. 736-3724, in this area code."
"I don't know that I'd remember..."
"Can you remember P-E-N-D-R-A-G? I thought so. If you need to, call it. Collect. Arthur will take care of everything."
"Why should he do that?"
"Because he loves her. And you. And because it's right. South, huh?"
Kaye pulled off the highway at a truck stop. "Suit yourself. Wait for the next truck marked 'Drake Enterprises' They'll be expecting you. And Lancelot, don't... ah, hell, you'll take as long as you're going to take, no matter what I say. Merry meet and merry part."
"You're going to make me say it, aren't you? All right then. Merry meet again, Kaye."
She had stayed inside long enough. Crocuses had bloomed, and a few other blossoms were taking their chances. Still too early to rule out a late frost completely, but...
Where to go? Shoemaker's Elf had always been fun. She'd try that. She went inside and smiled at Vivian who smiled back at her.
"Good to see you again. It's been a long time."
"It's been a long time for me too, Vivian. It's good to be out again." Jenny headed over to the display case where Vivian stood. The knife case. She glanced down and saw it, and started to cry.
"Yes," Vivian said. "His. He traded it for the ring."
"I thought he... thought he was lying about his..."
"There were things he didn't tell you, but everything he did tell you was true."
"How do you know that?" Jenny asked her.
Vivian ran her hand through her hair, brushing it away from her forehead. Jenny saw a pale crescent moon mark there, which, to some degree, answered her question.
"I sent him out, Vivian. Into the cold. I killed him."
Vivian went to the door and turned the sign around so it said "Closed" to the people on the street. She locked the door, took Jenny into the back room, and put her in a chair. Vivian prepared an herbal tea - camomile, jasmine, and valerian. She thought for a moment and added a touch of catnip to the mix, and one strawberry leaf. She heated water in a microwave and poured it over the herbs in the cup, which she then covered. She stroked Jenny's hair while it brewed, then gave her the tea to drink.
"You have to understand, Jenny. What did he offer you?"
"That's just a thing. No more than a symbol. What did he offer you?"
"He... his love."
"Yes. And his life. And what did he ask for?"
"The ring is a symbol. Of what?"
"Yes. And life. Of two lives, through love, becoming one. And how did you answer that?"
"I sent him away."
"I don't know."
"Yes, Jenny, you do."
"Because... I was angry."
"What did he do to make you angry?"
"He... I don't..."
"He wasn't really the cause of your anger was he?"
"I... I guess... No. I was afraid. Of being hurt again."
"Why should you be afraid? How could you have been hurt?"
"Because I... Because I..." Jenny wailed with tears, and Vivian held her as if she were a child.
"I know, dear. You're afraid to even say it. He was too, but he was even more afraid not to. It can be a frightening thing to allow yourself that kind of vulnerability. You don't have to say it to me. But you do have to admit it to yourself. And you will have to say it to him."
"To him? How can I..."
"You did not kill him. He's alive. He's just gone away for a while. He will be back. Even he doesn't think so yet, but he will. He's gone far away, but as he wanders, one day he'll find himself near. There will be a sign for you when that day comes, and then you must go to him. You will know what to do. There will be a sign for him as well, but until you can say what he needs to hear... he must hear it before he can come back to you. Do you understand?"
"Do you still have the ring?"
"How can I wear it? I don't deserve to. I broke his heart."
"But his heart is a strong one. It'll heal. With your help. And by doing that, yours will heal as well. When the day comes, you must be wearing it. When he sees that, the healing will begin. You must be wearing it."
"Yes. I will be."
Jenny had worked at Shoemaker's Elf for almost two years now. The touch of grey Elliot had noticed at her temples had become a pair of distinct streaks, and the lines around her eyes were a little deeper, but she stood straighter, and there was no longer any sign of a potential dowager's hump.
She received a paycheck for working there, but what was more valuable to her was the wisdom she gained from Vivian, and friendship they shared. She was happy, for the most part. Only one thing was missing. Well, maybe two things.
As she walked home today, she saw Percival again. She had seen him occasionally over the past two years, watching but keeping his distance, much like Kaye. But today he came closer. He would take a few steps, then turn around and call to her. As she approached, he would run off again, but never out of sight, then turn and call again.
This was the day. So she followed.
The truck driver put away the cell phone. "Sorry. Gotta make an unscheduled stop. You can wait in the truck if you want. It shouldn't take long." He maneuvered the truck to the outside lane, and soon exited the highway.
It was her town. Elliot's heart was torn. It felt uncomfortable, but at the same time it felt right. It doesn't matter, he thought. I'll just stay in the truck. It doesn't mean anything.
They arrived at a freight terminal. The driver stopped the truck and went into the building, taking some papers with him. Elliot sat in the cab, trying not to look out the windows. But one thing caught his eye. A cat ran out into the street and stopped on the median. A black and white cat. It looked so much like...
"Percival?" he asked himself. It couldn't be, but... he had to know. He stepped out of the cab and walked toward the street. The cat looked at him, then back, then at him again. It started to step into the lanes of fast traffic.
"Percival! No!" Elliot shouted. The cat stopped, and Elliot ran to the median, inciting passing drivers to rebuke him with car horns and shouts.
"Percival! It is you! I thought you were dead! And you will be if you keep running into traffic like this." He picked the cat up. "Come on, old friend, let's get you back to safety." Elliot crossed to the other side of the street. Then, in the space between buildings, he saw her.
He set Percival down, petted him once, and said, "You'd better go now, boy. Be careful." He looked up at Jenny, then stood, turned and started to step into the street.
"Elliot!" she called.
Percival stepped in front of him and meowed in protest.
"Elliot, please!" she called to him.
He turned to face her. She saw the look in his eyes. It was the look of one who had been hurt, and expected to be hurt again, the look in the eyes of an animal on the brink of going feral. She knew that if she moved too quickly, he'd bolt and she'd never see him again. She walked toward him slowly, gingerly. She took his hands in hers, holding them up so he could see that she wore the ring. His face fell to her hands and though his face was dry, she could feel the tears held back in his heart.
"Elliot, please, listen to me. I love you, Elliot. I was afraid of that, but I'm not any more."
"I love you too, Jenny. I always have."
She kissed his hands, then released them and put her arms around him. "I know. Please, Elliot. Come back. Come home." She felt Elliot's tension starting to subside.
Jenny looked down at Percival, and he looked up at her. "It's time for you to come home too," she said to the cat. Percival leaped, climbed to Elliot's shoulder, and perched there, purring so loudly that Elliot and Jenny could both hear it in spite of the nearby traffic.
Elliot smiled. It was a small smile, but it was enough.
"There," said the Old Man. "When the time comes, he'll be ready."
"Will he?" Art asked.
"Indeed, he will, this time," the Old Man replied.
"Didn't he have her before? What's different about now?"
"The doctors told you she was barren, Wart. But they didn't know the real reason why."
"Your son is meant to be born of another, not her. I made sure that didn't happen. But Lancelot's also meant to have a son. The measures I took to ensure she didn't bear your son... don't apply to him. When we tried this before, he was in search of a cause worth dying for, and he thought he found it with you. Even when he rescued her from the stake, he was willing - indeed, expecting - to die in the attempt."
"Yes, even I had a sense of that."
"Well... soon he'll have an even stronger motivation - a cause worth living for."
© 2002 Ben Kloepper
Updated © 2009
All rights reserved
© 2012 Richard H. Fox