Warmth – Story by B. Mason

Warmth - Story by B. Mason (@inparenth)

B. Mason is from Washington, DC.

Warmth

There’s just enough time for one last search—felis catus in place of “cats,” slightly more scientific-sounding keywords on either side.

She must know what will become of them. They’re tranquil now, one lolling under the desk, another in the empty aquarium, yet another atop the bookshelf. But after a few days—or weeks—with no oversight, who’s to say they won’t revert to some primal state? Who’s to say Junior and Leo won’t eat Celine’s share of the food? Or try to violate her? Or, God forbid, each other?

There are still no answers.

She walks to the window above the kitchen sink. Through the glass, as always, it’s a parade of ankles, the odd cigarette or wrapper or gobbet of phlegm hitting the sidewalk. She springs the latch and pushes, barely manages to force the gap to whisker width. The cold buffets her face, pricks at her eyes. Pantlegs shush. Car horns honk. A man says Unbe-fucking-lievable into his phone. It will be an adjustment, no doubt. But better to leave them to the outside, to trust that alley culture will keep them in check, than to let them live in a world solely of their own design.

Here kitties,” she calls.

Her phone vibrates. It’s E_____. ETA 15 min.

She replies. Same. Getting dressed.

She disrobes on the way down the hall. Her shower is hasty, unsatisfying. The moment she emerges from the bathroom, wearing just a towel, hair still wet, she’s freezing. She jogs in place as she checks the bedroom for cats. None. The living room. None. Finally, in the kitchen, she finds all—four—of them sitting on the heating vent beneath the table.

“Who the—?”

She takes a few steps towards them, bends down, rests her hands on her knees. The stranger, a fat orange tabby, holds her gaze.

When her phone vibrates this time, she doesn’t look.

She runs straight to the bedroom, throws on a sweater, jerks herself into long underwear, socks, pants and boots. She sprints back to the kitchen. The cats watch her every move, rapt as she stands before the sink and scatters two generous handfuls of seafood nibbles on the sidewalk.

“Yummy yummy yummy.” She scoops up Celine and the stranger, one in each hand, and puts them through the window.

Leo meows. Junior meows.

“I didn’t forget you.” She grabs them, sets them down next to the others, yanks the window closed.

E_______ texts again. S_____ and I on site. S______ in place. ETA?

The embassy is a 20-minute walk; the ceremony starts in 10. ETA 5 min.

She lingers for a moment, taps the glass. “Psst. Kee kee kee.” The cats, still eating, are oblivious—even to the passersby who narrowly avoid stepping on their tails. They don’t notice when she slips away.

In the entryway, beneath the coat rack in a fancy department store box, are the hat and coat S_______ delivered yesterday. She unties the ribbon, opens the lid, puts them on. The hat is knit but not particularly warm, a shade of green—dayglow, nearly—she’d never, ever wear. The coat, a network of obscure packets and wiring stitched meticulously into the lining, weighs at least twenty pounds. Its pockets are sewn shut, save the front right, through which she’ll access the detonator. She’s been reminded more than once not to rest her hand there—not until the appointed time—no matter how cold it gets, no matter how fidgety she feels.

Her regular, everyday coat hangs on the rack. She checks the pockets for her gloves. They’re not there. She tries her rain coat. They’re not there. She tries her regular coat again. Still nothing. She bolts for the bedroom—but catches herself, slows to a walk. As she passes the kitchen, she glimpses the cats sitting in a line at the window, looking intently in. Leo sees her, paws the glass. She keeps going, stiff, upright.

In the bedroom, she empties one dresser drawer, then another, then another—all to no avail. Likewise the shelf in the closet, the box of scarves under the bed. On her way to look in the living room, she stops to watch a young boy, maybe five or six, squat and pet Celine. Celine hisses, strikes, scratches his hand. The boy stands up, kicks her. She runs away, followed by Junior and Leo, followed by the boy. The stranger inches closer to the window, lies down, licks his groin.

She’s searching under the couch when her phone vibrates once more.

RU on site?

She starts removing cushions with one hand, types with the other. Slight delay. ETA 10 min.

The ceremony may have ended by the time she arrives; the crowd may have begun to thin out. E_____ may spurn her, refuse to make eye contact as he gives the signal from across the courtyard. S_____ may mutter some mild, disapproving oath as he watches from his safe remove. But she will not leave until she’s ready. She will find her gloves. She will be warm before she’s absolutely hot.

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