“Just a little further.”
Laughing as Jake lead her forward, Abby’s stomach flipped flopped. A surprise, he had said before bundling her into the car with childish glee and making her promise to keep her eyes shut. Her thoughts bounced between a hotel suite full of candles, a restaurant drowning in roses and the various shades possible for small velvet boxes.
“Watch your step.”
She lifted her foot high and felt what she guessed was more concrete or asphalt under her sneaker.
“Where are we going?”
“Almost there,” he said, giving her hand a squeeze.
She shook her head and swallowed down a flock of butterflies.
The tinny ring of a set of bells made her frown.
“Welcome,” greeted a woman with a bubbly voice. The woman quieted with a titter and rustle of paper.
Jake, Abby speculated, must have put a finger to his lips.
She sniffed as the late afternoon air had taken on a strong tinge of pine disinfectant at war against a port-a-potty. Meows and yaps echoed nearby. Abby’s sneakers squeaked against tile. They stopped after a few more strides.
“OK!” said Jake.
Abby opened her eyes.
Before her stood a glass window exposing a towering assembly of crates. Muzzles and round faces peaked out between thin bars. Canine and feline eyes peered from each container.
Abby felt her heart thud, the butterflies melting into puddles.
The door beside the window swung open, revealing a rumpled sitting room complete with frayed rug and battered couch. A beaming woman guided a little version of herself passed them.
“He’s perfect, mom.” The little girl’s arms were wrapped around a small fur ball, mewing softly under constant petting.
“You’ll take good care of him right?”
“Of course,” the little girl promised as they moved down the hall toward the entry way.
Following them, Abby found the source of the initial bubbly greeting. A plump woman with a mane of ragged blond locks haphazardly gathered, waved them toward her, one hand holding a bound set of pages.
“Here’s his medical information and license,” she said with a tone now heavy with responsibility.
Abby pivoted back to the window. The animal chatter softened only when the swinging door settled closed once again.
“What is this?” asked Abby.
“The Animal Shelter.” Jake’s smile broadened as he pressed his nose near the glass. Glancing at her, his boyish excitement dropped into a concerned frown. “You said you wanted to get a cat.”
The little line above his nose made her cringe. She fiddled with the zipper on her jacket.
“Yeah. But I didn’t mean now.”
“Why not?” He swept his hand toward the interior holding room. “They need a home and I haven’t gone this long without a pet since I was in college.”
She licked her lips and cast her gaze back over the containers.
“You don’t want to do this?”
“It’s not that, Jake.” She rubbed at her temple. “The apartment-.”
“Says we can’t have anything over 50 pounds.”
“Isn’t it going to be messy?”
“A bit of hair and a litter box.” Jake shrugged and scooped her free left hand into his grasp. “No worse than me. I still remember all my mom’s tips too.”
“You’re mom has allergies,” Abby recalled.
“And two cats. We’ll be fine.”
Abby felt her shoulders wilt.
“Come and look, at least?”
Jake’s eyes grew wide, like a rabbit pleading with a set of headlights.
Closing her eyes and holding her breath, Abby nodded. She allowed him to tug her through the doorway and seat her on the tweed cushions.
Abby’s eyes snapped open. A reedy young woman with a neat bundle of raven hair walked toward the back door with a broad grin on her cherry stained lips and a sturdy box in her arms.
“Hi,” said Jake. The couch sagged as he sat down beside Abby, her hand still in his. “We’re interested in meeting some feline friends.”
The young woman giggled and swiveled back to them. “This is the newest litter we have.”
She bent over to reveal the box, full of mewling kittens.
“You’re welcome to introduce yourselves.” She set the crate on the floor.
“Thanks,” said Jake, his eyes flicking between each of the little faces.
“I’m Meg by the way.”
Abby gave Meg a thin smile as she straightened and gazed down at Jake’s bowed head.
“Abby,” said Abby. “This is my boyfriend.” She elbowed Jake in the ribs and he looked up at her, then to Meg as if he had forgotten both existed.
“Nice to meet you both,” said Meg. Abby thought she caught a bit more frost on the gleaming smile. “Let me know if you’d like to meet any of our other critters. We’ve lots that need a good home.”
“We’ll do that,” said Abby while Jake reached into the box.
Meg’s mouth closed. She cocked her head, like a puppy determining if a toy was really fun to play with, then headed back on her initial trajectory. Abby waited until the door shut again before glancing at Jake.
“Look at this one.”
A street-cone orange kitten with a white belly and vibrant eyes barely filled his hands. Fluff tinged ears turned toward Abby and a pink mouth yawned, showing tiny teeth.
“Cute,” Abby said.
The box at their feet thumped and the other five kittens staggered out, like drunks from a bar at dawn. Abby blew out a long breath.
“You really want to do this? With me?”
She met his gaze once Jake tore himself from a staring contest with the kitten. Lowering the fur ball to his knees, his thumb continued petting the head absently. The sparkle in his eyes diminished a bit, tempered by the wave of concern seizing his features.
“Why else would I have brought you here?”
Abby rubbed her hands on her knees and absorbed every stain in the matted piece of carpet.
“It’s just kind of serious you know? Sharing an apartment is one thing, but this…” She motioned toward the litter rampaging on the floor. “This is another life. That’s a commitment.”
Jake shrugged. “I guess it is.”
“And you’re ok with that?” she asked, looking back up at him.
She searched his face until Jake returned to stare at the kitten. He fell silent so long, Abby was certain his brain had been overcome by feline adorableness. When he met her eyes again, his level stare nearly stopped her heart.
A tug at her shoe yanked Abby from his eyes. A kitten with coal stripes against a gray backdrop pawed her laces.
“I think that one likes you.”
Abby felt her cheeks color. She reached down and plucked the kitten off the floor.
Her fingers soaked into the soft fur until she reached the warm body underneath. The rapid heartbeat of the little cat throbbed against her skin and sank into her bones. A narrow tongue gave her finger a sandpaper lick.
Reaching around her shoulder and pulling Abby slightly against his side, Jake gave the top of the kitten’s head a scrub. A paw struck out playfully then lay on Abby’s hand as a round of purring began.
Abby leaned the top of her head against Jake’s jaw line and felt the butterflies return en masse.
“I think she likes you too.”