Hey everyone! Finding Emma will be available one week from today on Tuesday, October 20. The time really flew by, didn’t it? Anyway, I’ve included the purchase links below for ebook and paperback copies. I’ll be posting little teasers this whole week as a pre-release celebration, so make sure to keep an eye on my Twitter and Facebook accounts. Enjoy!
“Thank you for being a friend…traveled down the road and back again…”
I blew my bangs out of my eyes as I fumbled for my keys and shot a wary glance at the door down the hall from mine. Must be nice to sit around and watch Estelle Getty verbally abuse Betty White all day, I mused and shook my head at Mrs. Johannsen’s door. Her apartment was technically directly in front of mine with the way our building was structured. Our connecting walls were so paper thin I was beginning to seriously worry about how much more cackling I could reasonably stand.
If marathon after marathon of old lady escapades blaring through my walls was the worst of my problems with Mrs. Johannsen, then I guess I really shouldn’t complain. Considering that she never asked any invasive questions and generally left me alone, she was the best neighbor somebody like me could ask for. My eyes landed on the door directly across from mine and a little fluttering of nervousness shot through me. Mrs. Johannsen had not-so-discreetly informed me yesterday that we were finally due for some new neighbors on our floor.
The apartment directly across from mine had sat vacant for two glorious months of silence and disruption-free nights. My last neighbors were nice enough, but given that our patios shared a wall and they always had their patio door open, it was difficult to shut out the screeching, ear-splitting crying no matter how loud I turned up my turntable or my TV. The baby was cute. She was really was. Chubby cheeks and pretty brown eyes with little wisps of strawberry-blonde hair.
I still hated her.
All I wanted was peace, quiet, and sleep-filled nights. And all that baby did was cry and cry and cry, making it pretty much impossible for me to sleep or get any work done. I got that babies were difficult, that being a new parent was hard, but that didn’t mean I had to suffer right along with them too. It wasn’t like I could exactly knock on the door and tell them to turn down the noise. I’m sure they would’ve loved a baby-controlling remote that you could just click to mute the noise and I would’ve happily bought one for them if a beautiful invention like that actually existed.
Needless to say, I’d done a little happy dance when they finally bought a house and moved the hell out.
That was the scary thing about knowing new neighbors were on their way–you just never knew what you were going to get, but not in that optimistic life-is-like-a-box-of-chocolates way. They could be the nicest, quietest neighbors ever that just kept to themselves and minded their business, kind of like Mrs. Johannsen, minus her tolerable TV addiction, and my upstairs neighbors, who were rarely home anyways. Or they could be loud. Obnoxious. Intrusive. Uninvited. Messy. Annoying.
I blew out a deep breath just at the thought. I was better off just focusing on what I could control, which over the last year, wasn’t a whole lot.
After finally pushing through the door, I tossed my keys onto the tiny end table I’d set up right next to the door just for that purpose, kicked off my shoes, and opened my patio door to air out my stuffy living space. I inhaled deeply, my eyes taking in the peace residing in my makeshift backyard. Any kind of treeline in this part of Milwaukee was rare and when I first saw the view in this apartment–thick, green brush and tall trees that blocked everything else out–I knew I had to have it.
This apartment and this city really gave me the best of both worlds: I could get lost in the bustle, but come home to peace and quiet.
Today was really just an average day. My shift at The Corner Cafe was easy, sort of slow, and uneventful. I had $70 in tips sitting in my purse, which wasn’t great for a Friday, but it wouldn’t necessarily put me in the red either. Overall, it was a pretty good, quiet day in the city.
As if on cue, my iPhone buzzed in my back pocket. My eyes flew to the digital clock above my stove and then flitted up to the ceiling with a shake of my head. Jesus, it was like damned clockwork with him. Unfortunately, I also knew that if I didn’t respond sometime soon, my overprotective-to-a-serious-fault older brother would just keep bothering me until he got what he wanted.
Never should’ve given that nosy bastard my schedule.
One swipe across the screen told me what I needed to know: How was ur day?
Well, I guess I couldn’t really fault the guy for trying, so I pounded out a quick reply, telling him what he already knew. Less than a second later, he replied: Good to hear. Love u, Em.
There, that wasn’t so bad. Pushing aside the nagging guilt tugging at my conscience, I figured my best bet was to just stick with my plan for the rest of my night: eating, watching Netflix, blogging, more Netflix, and last but certainly not least, sleeping. Why was that so bad? Noah knew everything, all the dirty, humiliating details, and he still didn’t understand why this was the way it had to be. Why I needed to live this way. Why I needed to separate myself from what he referred to as actual living.
His worry wasn’t necessarily misplaced, but it wasn’t productive either.
Life was just less complicated and less tragic when it was a one-woman show.
With that last thought, I booted up Netflix on my TV and toggled over to the next episode of Orange is the New Black. I needed to write another blog post tonight, this time on the best BB creams to use this fall–compelling stuff, right?–but that still left plenty of time to lose myself in the goings-on at Litchfield Penitentiary and make dinner. Careful to turn the volume up enough to drown out the cackling Golden Girl, I threw a chicken breast on a skillet and let Piper and company give me a little escape.
By the time I was seated on my couch, nibbling away at the chicken and side salad, and engrossed in the middle of an episode, I’d scrolled through emails, made some mental notes about the blog post I had to write, and had a cold glass of Moscato sitting in front of me.
My phone buzzed one more time and my eyes lifted to the ceiling.
Dinner at our house this weekend??
I had to give Noah credit for trying. For still trying and refusing to give up on me, even though I turned him and Cristina down almost every time. The last time I’d agreed to a dinner at their house, my mom had shown up unannounced and uninvited.
That pretty much put an end to my desire to travel back to Hickory for any reason. Swallowing back more than a little guilt, I pounded a quick reply telling him I had to work all weekend and couldn’t make it. I would be an aunt in about a month and I didn’t want to be anywhere near the town where my soon-to-be niece would live. It was a kick in the gut, salt in an open wound, but it was something I could live with.
Pushing aside that lingering gnawing at my stomach, my attention shifted back to my TV and I let fantasy drown out reality for a few blissful, carefree minutes. Just as Crazy Eyes got done throwing pie, I saw it.
Streaks of grey and black. Little flashes of white. All hovering around my patio chairs. What the…
I shot up from my couch and darted over to my patio door. There it was. A stupid, skinny, grey and black striped cat.
“What the fuck?”
The cat was weaving in and around the leg of the patio chair closest to my screen door and his head lifted up at the sound of my voice, giving me a good look at the white patch on his chest and four little white paws. My heart did something I hadn’t felt in a long time–it tugged. I swallowed hard in response.
It was the eyes. Soft grey. Glinting almost ethereally in the twilight. It was like someone had taken an Emma-controlling remote and clicked pause. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think. I just stared back.
As if it could sense it needed to make the first move, the cat ducked underneath the chair, bending and slinking until its nose pressed against my screen door. It sat back on its haunches, opened its mouth, and this little mewing sound croaked out, deep and forceful, like it expected me to understand, to be able to communicate somehow this way.
It stared back at me expectantly as if to say, Well?
I just stared back. I didn’t know what to do. All my faculties had just sort of left the building. Motor ability. Verbal ability…all vanished as I gaped back at this cat.
Finally, the cat seemed to realize I wasn’t going to communicate the way he wanted me to and stood up on all four legs, with its white socks, and slinked down the entire length of my patio door, heading right for my long, rectangular planter filled with rows of little blue and yellow flowers.
Was it going to…and then its long, striped tail flicked up to reveal the biggest pair of kitty balls I’d ever seen. Okay, I’d never seen a pair of kitty balls before but…Jesus.
So, it was definitely a he. No doubt about that.
My attention was too immersed in the logistics of how a skinny little cat like him carried around such massive testicles–bottom-heavy was probably the best to describe it–that my brain completely delayed when he sat his two front paws on the edge of my planter and then started digging with his right paw.
Oh shit. Oh no…no! No!
My brain was screaming, but somewhere along the way, all the neurons connecting my brain to my voice had completely disconnected. So I watched in complete disbelief and horror as the cat proceeded to use my potted plants as his own personal litter box.
Part of me was a little impressed. At least he didn’t piss all over my concrete patio…but my plants. Oh shit. My plants!
Finally, my voice snapped back to life.
That was all I had.
His head snapped towards me at the sound of my voice and he continued right on pissing, blinking at me as if to say, Whatcha gonna do about it? Bring it, lady.
“Stop! That’s…don’t do that!”
Seriously, this was the best I could do? Couldn’t even muster up enough emotion to reprimand a cat anymore…I guess I’d really lost my touch. He glanced at me again from over his shoulder and when he’d finished soiling my bright blue and yellow flowers, promptly resumed digging to cover up his business.
“Yeah, like that’ll help. Thanks a lot.”
His grey eyes bugged out a little and his mouth curled into a slight O, like he’d suddenly just realized that maybe I didn’t want him using my planter as his bathroom. That long, striped tail flicked at the tip a few times and then he hopped down from the planter, heading right for me in slow, leisurely strides. He stopped in front of the screen door again and sat down, his tail flipping up and down on the concrete underneath him.
His mouth opened and let out one long wail, almost like a call, like a plea for me to do…something. That tugging at my heart was right there again, pulling and twisting and digging, and then he leapt up to scratch both front paws on my screen door, mewing and wailing again.
Let me in. Let me in. Let me in.
That’s what he wanted.
That wasn’t going to happen.
No way in hell.
Even if I wanted to let him in, my apartment complex had a strict no-pets-allowed clause in my lease. So no dogs. No birds. No guinea pigs. And definitely no cats. And most importantly, cats made my eyes itchy and watery. Cats made my throat close and my nose runny. I didn’t typically ever want anything to do with them and kept my distance. I didn’t know what to do with them.
Not happening, buddy, I thought ruefully.
He just kept scratching his paws up the length of my screen door, stretching up as far as he could, mewing and trilling long, throaty sounds. Those eyes…shit, those eyes. Pleading with me. Begging me.
I took a shaky breath and before I knew what I was doing, I backpedalled into my kitchen, keeping my eyes on the cat on my patio the entire time. My mind flipped through the meager supply of food I kept in the refrigerator. What the hell did cats eat anyways? Was I supposed to give them milk? Wait, I didn’t have any milk. I hitched my hands on my hips, mentally surveying what little I had to offer.
This was a bad idea.
A really bad idea.
I’d always heard that you should never, ever feed a stray cat. They’d just keep coming back. This was probably the stupidest idea I’d ever had, but I just couldn’t help myself. He was so skinny…even through the dark fur and even darker night air around him, little bony ribs protruded out of his body. He wasn’t skeletal by any means–he just looked like he hadn’t eaten much in awhile.
My stomach flip-flopped as I grabbed a few pieces of bread and filled up a plastic bowl with water. When I stood in front of the screen door again, he was just sitting there observing me with those shimmering grey eyes and I swallowed tightly.
The problem was that I had to actually open the door now.
How was I supposed to know what he would do? He could jump at me, bite me, scratch me, try to sneak inside my apartment…I didn’t know this cat. Even though he seemed harmless, that didn’t mean he’d be friendly once the barriers between us came down. As far as I was concerned, he was just a mangy, wild animal who couldn’t be trusted.
He opened his mouth again, this time letting out a long meow that sounded more like a maawhr than an actual meow. Then again, what the hell did I know about cats? This was the closest I’d ever been to one in years. And now he was still sitting there, waiting expectantly.
With a deep breath, I slid open the screen door just enough to toss the pieces of bread out to the furthest edge of my patio. He took the bait, leaping up to go after the bread and I hastily stuck my arm out to set the water bowl down a few feet away from me, sloshing water all over the place in the process. Then I snapped my arm back and slammed the screen door shut just as quickly.
There. I did it.
As I watched him wolf down the two pieces of bread, that fluttering sped up again in my stomach. I’d probably just created a huge problem for myself by feeding him, but now that I’d done it, I didn’t feel guilty. I didn’t regret it. I was just sort of glad I’d been able to help him, even if it was just for a night.
Happiness and relief that he’d have some food in that skinny little body knocked out any other feelings of unease and hesitation.
Happiness and relief were not feelings I was used to having. I wasn’t used to feeling like I’d done the right thing. I think I’d forgotten what that even felt like in the first place. But I felt it now. It surged through me, sweeping down from my toes all the way up to the tip of my nose. I took a deep breath and watched him move from the edge of my patio until he sat down right in front of me to lap up some water.
I still couldn’t move.
I still stood there, frozen at my screen door, staring at this stray cat.
My eyes wandered over him to take in the details I’d missed before. Patches of wiry, pale whiskers on tiny cheeks. Dark streaks slashed across his face. A brown-tipped nose with pink smudging. Sharp, pointed dark ears. A long black stripe starting in between his shoulder blades running all the way down to the base of his tail, layered with rings of alternating black and grey.
As he lapped up the water like he hadn’t seen it in days, which might’ve been true, the tip of his tail, which looked like it’d been dipped in ink, flicked from side to side. His head popped up once, his eyes boring into me to say, Geez, lady. Would you quit staring and let me drink this shit in peace?
In the moonlight, his eyes looked a little more green now than grey. Like seafoam. Sweet. Maybe even a little innocent too.
Where did he come from? Why was he out here by himself? He was obviously somebody’s cat, given the way he’d violated my potted plants, so why wasn’t he home now? What had brought him here, tonight, to my patio door?
Well, clearly the aroma of chicken brought him to my patio door, but that was besides the point. Did he have a home and just get lost? Was someone looking for him? Hoping he was okay? Or did someone not want him and just let him go?
That last thought seized my heart and squeezed tight. I hoped that wasn’t the case. I hoped he had a home. Maybe he was just one of those outdoor cats that roamed around during the day and then went back home at night. I mean, he’d used my plants as a litter box, so I was pretty sure he was at least a little housetrained.
Once he’d had his fill from the plastic bowl, his bright pink tongue shot out to tug up the length of his right paw and then he dragged his paw over the side of his head. His dark-rimmed eyes flicked back to me once and a moment later, he was leaping up onto the patio chair closest to where I stood. He reared back on the seat, leaning his body down into his front paws in a long, easy stretch that stuck his butt high in the air then he circled the seat once, found a good spot, and plopped down on the chair, making sure he was still facing me.
He blinked. Then he blinked again. And then he rested his head against a white paw, those grey, seafoam eyes sparkling a little in the darkness.
I sawed on my bottom lip and frowned back at him.
“I see you’ve made yourself comfortable,” I called out to him softly and narrowed my eyes a little when his head popped up at the sound of my voice. “Well, just…don’t get too comfortable, okay? You can stay, I guess. But just for tonight. Don’t get any ideas.”
What was I doing…talking to a cat? Like he could understand me anyways. Still, I felt like I’d made my point and I went back to my plans for the night, finishing my dinner and that episode of Orange is the New Black, my eyes shifting out to the patio every few minutes.
When it was time to start writing my blog post, though, the cat was a distraction. It was hard to focus on whether or not to choose a moisture-based BB cream or a higher SPF formula when there was a wild animal sitting on my patio like he owned the place.
After about 20 minutes of staring at my screen, I figured a little music would do the trick and switched the needle on my turntable to the record I’d lazily left there from the night before. Music had long been a source of comfort to me and tonight was really no exception. Whenever I needed to clear my head, or just needed a distraction in general, music had always been there to pick up the pieces, lulling through any pain, any heartache, and anything that ailed me. Whether it was a sad country song or a catchy pop song, the beats never failed to either cure my emotions or enhance them. It was the only form of therapy I could ever agree to and the only thing keeping me sane, in light of recent life-shattering events.
And in light of those recent events, I’d needed music more than ever.
I glanced over at the patio to find the cat watching my every move like he was just sort of…observing. Taking inventory. It was a little creepy. And weird. Definitely weird. Like he wasn’t just watching me, but seeing me too.
I wasn’t sure I liked it. And I also wasn’t completely convinced that my imagination wasn’t playing tricks on me right now either.
But when I carried my computer over to the patio and dropped down until my back rested against the wall right next to the screen door, I don’t know who was more surprised: me or the cat.
As if on cue, he hopped down from the chair and sat down right across from me until the only things separating us were a few feet and some flimsy wiring.
“Hey,” I whispered to him. His ears pricked up and one of them tilted to the side. “You like this song?”
His mouth quirked a little, curling into that tiny O shape again, and he moved a hair closer.
“Hey, hey,” I sang softly. “What’s the matter with your head?”
Those shimmering eyes focused on me and I kept on singing: “Come and get your love…”
“Sorry,” I told him. “I probably won’t be trying out for American Idol anytime soon, you know?”
His chest jumped, like he’d hiccupped or something, and he made a noise that sounded like…meh. Like a grumble or a murmur. Like he was answering me.
“I gotta get some work done, but I think I’ll sit right here while I do it if that’s okay with you.”
My lips twitched at the sound and I shifted my focus back to finishing up this blog post. I had about another two hours or so before I needed to post it, but I still needed to get my ass in gear.
“Can you believe I actually make some money off this?” I told him as I typed. “I guess I’ve been doing it for so long and enough people started reading it…advertising and all that, you know? You wanna know what my blog is called?”
I grinned at him. “Northern Chic. Kinda catchy, huh? You know, because we live in Wisconsin?”
“Yeah, I started this beauty blog when I was a senior in high school and I just sort of never stopped, even through college and after I graduated. I don’t use my real name or anything. No one knows who I am, which, trust me, is a good thing. But it’s fun. I like it. I like when companies send me things to try, too.”
And I especially liked the extra padding it gave my bank account every month. Between ads and online retailers giving me a kick-back for linking to products on their sites, I had a healthy little side business. It wasn’t quite enough to cover my bills every month, but between my blog and waitressing, I was living pretty comfortably, or at least, as comfortably as I could.
“The Smashbox brand tends to run a little oily, so if you have combination skin, that might not be the best option for you. When I tested it earlier this week, my cheeks were shiny and greasy enough that I felt like I needed to wash it off immediately. This one just didn’t work for my skin, but if your skin tends to start to dry out come fall, this one might work better for you than it did for me….there, what do you think of that?”
I shifted my eyes back to the cat, whose grey eyes were still observing me intently. That murmuring rumbled from his chest again and I smiled back.
“Now, all I have to do is add some pictures, some buy links, and I’m all set to post. It probably shouldn’t be this easy, but people read it, you know?”
My head bobbed a little more to the music as I finished up my post. “Hey, hey, get it together, baby…”
Once I had everything all loaded up on my blog, my eyes fell to the clock on my laptop. In my past life, I’d been used to getting my ass to bed by 10 at the latest on school nights, but now that issue was pretty much obsolete. So, when I got the random breakfast shift, my body tended to reject morning-person mode and I usually felt like a zombie for the first hour or so of my shift. It definitely didn’t help that this was actually a double shift tomorrow and I probably wouldn’t get home until after four.
“Well,” I told him and his chin tilted up at the sound of my voice. “I should probably head to bed. I have to get up for work early tomorrow and…um, like I said, you can stay, I guess, if you want to.”
His chest bopped and then his mouth opened for one last maawhr as I stood up to head into my bedroom and shut the patio door, feeling a prickling of guilt as his eyes stared up at me and his tail flicked up and down on the concrete. It was mid-September, but the air was still a crisp-warm contradiction that was normal for Wisconsin this time of year. Not exactly hot, but not freezing temperatures at night either. My fingers immediately flew to the weather app on my phone and relaxed a little. Low of 57 degrees tonight. That wasn’t so bad.
He’ll be fine out there tonight, I told myself as I crept down my hallway, and this obviously isn’t the first night he’s spent outside by himself.
Just as I reached my bedroom door, I glanced over my shoulder to find his dark, shadowy shape perched back up on that patio chair again.
Maybe he’d…nope. Not going there.
He’d gotten what he wanted from me and he’d be gone in the morning anyways.