Slamming the door to her apartment shut with ringing finality, Mary Christmas leaned back against the cool steel and sighed. Ring the bells of freedom! She'd made it inside with only a few minutes delay.
That she'd nearly flattened her interfering landlord's nose with her door was definitely inconsequential. Sure, he was probably only being a nice, concerned neighbor by stopping her in the hall and warning her not to just buzz anyone who wanted access past the security door. Evidently, there'd been some break-ins in the neighborhood. But, she had her priorities...and who knew what wonderful things awaited her in the peaceful sanctity of her own little home.
To be so uncaring about Tim Kratchetti was unusual. And really, Tim Kratchetti was about the least interfering landlord going. If it hadn't been for his careful restoration of the building, she'd never have enjoyed taking over her parents' apartment nearly as much-even with rent control. Normally, Mary would have apologized profusely, begged for forgiveness and then hauled him through the doorway and into her apartment for some tender and concerned care-an ice bag for his nose and a steaming mug of hot cocoa with a candy cane to stir it with.
But, not tonight. This night was different.
Pulling off her red knitted mittens, Mary stomped the lingering snow from her boots. The mittens landed on top of her cap and scarf on the small hall chair-forgotten that morning in her haste not to be late to work again. While she pulled off her down-filled parka, Mary toed the snow boots from her feet, happily humming a Christmas carol.
Breezing through the short hallway of her apartment in the elderly building, Mary glanced to the left and right.
"Boots? Where are you Boots?" she called, as she walked straight to the table in the living room. She flicked on her computer and glanced around. Where was that cat?
The screen on her computer flickered to life. As much as she wanted to just forget everything and check her email immediately, the disappearance of Boots took priority. Thankfully, it was a small apartment and there weren't too many places that a cat could find to hide.
Mary loved her apartment in an older part of the city in a house that at one time boasted the residence of some of the richest people in the entire area, and for more reason than just that it held all her childhood memories. When it was built, the former owners hadn't spared a penny making it both sound and beautiful. Tim Kratchetti hadn't spared a penny either in restoring it and keeping it looking just as the original architects had intended. Though she only possessed seven rooms and a bath on the fourth floor of six, the rooms were big and airy with twelve-foot ceilings trimmed with ornate Art Deco designs. The windows were huge, opening on a panoramic view of the park across the street.
Glancing outside now, as the dusky fingers of night crept across the sky, she could see ice skaters sliding and twirling on the frozen pond, illuminated as much by the bonfires on the shore as by the tall lamps suspended overhead. Tiny skiffs of snow danced in the light breeze, spinning and surging upwards directly outside her window. Couples huddled together on the benches surrounding the pond. Mary doubted they cuddled as much to ward off the December cold as to share the sort intimacy only possible in a large crowd of people. It was the kind of intimacy she hadn't known for some time. A dry spell was how her mother referred to it.
Though the city could be a lonely place-especially during the holiday season-Mary never felt alone. The noise of the city streets surrounded her, as cars, buses and taxies hurried along on their way and corner Santas rang their bells merrily accepting coins dropped into their charity buckets. Street musicians favored those brave enough to stand a few minutes appreciatively as they sang or played carols. And when she came home, there was always Boots waiting for her, ready to yowl out the happenings of the day in the apartment while she was away at work. Also waiting was the daily long email from her mother, widowed and living in Florida.
"Boots, please come out here," she called, leaning through the open doorway to her bedroom. There was no sign of the cat. None at all. She turned and walked back through the living room toward the kitchen. Perhaps the elderly gray and black cat that'd been her companion for twelve wonderful years was munching on some of the homemade treats Mary concocted. But, the kitchen was vacant. The snack bowl on the mat just as full as when Mary'd left for the office that morning.
Again, she walked into the living room. She glanced at the computer. She knew that waiting there for her, just as soon as she signed on. There would be a welcome email from her mother outlining plans for Christmas. There'd be the flight number, the departure and arrival times and the motherly advice not to bother meeting her flight because one just never knew what kind of people hung around in airports just waiting to snatch an unsuspecting soul's purse or attempt to take liberties with them. It was advice that Mary consistently ignored, too excited to see her mother again to even consider waiting at the apartment. When Mother arrived, Christmas truly began.
Just as soon as she knew which flight her mother would be arriving on, Mary would call Santini's grocery on the corner and tell them when to deliver the Christmas tree. Old Mr. Santini, who sold trees each year, would make sure she had the best of the bunch-tall and full. He'd send his son, no longer a young man himself, over with it. Joe Santini would help her cut off the stump and set it properly in the holder. Then, it would be ready to decorate just as soon as her mother caught her breath, had a hot cup of her favorite tea and relaxed a bit.
Just the thought brought a smile to Mary's face, even though she worried about what had become of Boots. Where was that cat?
"Boots?" she called again, glancing into the bathroom as she walked down the hall. Tiny bursts of wind fluttered the white lace curtains on the small window. Drat. Once again, she'd left the window open, forgetting to close it after her shower and before she'd left for work that morning. Well, it could wait another few minutes until she found Boots.
She opened the door to her mother's bedroom, freshly cleaned and stocked just the day before in anticipation of her arrival from Florida. Not a sign of Boots there. It was silly to think that the cat could walk through a closed door anyway. Yet, knowing Boots, despite her advanced years, anything was possible. Mary closed that door and turned to another, opening to a combination den, spare bedroom and storage area. She glanced at the closet that held the Christmas decorations. Just as soon as she'd found Boots and read her mother's email, she'd start bringing down the decorations. But first...
Alarm grew into panic as Mary retraced her steps through the apartment. Where could that cat be? Not in the kitchen munching. Not perched in her favorite window in the living room watching her favorite pigeons cluster on the small ledge. Not curled in her basket in Mary's bedroom.
Mary threw herself on the living room floor and peeked under the over-stuffed couch. She flipped back the floral skirt and called for Boots. Three furry play mice, the feather from Mary's favorite winter hat and a pair of pantyhose. Boots was death on pantyhose if she could manage to steal a pair from the dresser drawer. But, no Boots.
Pushing herself up, Mary sat back and thought hard. Had someone been in the apartment? Tim perhaps? Had he accidentally allowed Boots to escape?
Just then, a soft meow, so soft that only one listening hard might hear it, filtered through the noise of the traffic outside to Mary's ears. At least it was a relief that Boots hadn't gone too far. But where?
"Once I find you, Boots, you and I are going to have a good talk about scaring the wits out of me," Mary called, rising from the floor. The sound seemed to be coming from the bathroom.
Mary walked back to the bathroom and looked around. She opened the hamper, thinking perhaps she'd forgotten to close it as she had the window that morning and somehow Boots had jumped in and the lid had slammed shut. No...nothing there but her laundry. She pulled open the shower curtain surrounding the old, claw-footed tub open. Aha! A discarded plush fish-one of Boots' favorite toys. The trail was becoming much warmer.
Picking up the fish, Mary called again. Boots responded and Mary followed the sound. She glanced over at the open window. No. That was impossible. She'd only opened the window a couple of inches, but now it was open twice that far and the little vase of silk violets she kept there was pushed nearly to the end of the sill. Standing on tiptoes, Mary pulled herself as far up the wall as she could to try to see out of the window, situated high on the wall.
"Boots, are you out there?"
"Boots, how the heck did you manage that?"
Mary shook her head. Somehow, Boots had managed to push open the window and crawl out on the ledge, probably to visit her friends, the pigeons. She refused to think that perhaps Boots was seeking a snack on the wing.
"Come here, Boots. Here, baby."
"Stay right there, Boots. I can't even see you. I'll have to get a chair."
It took only seconds to run to the living room and grab a chair from the dining room table and run back to the bathroom, but to Mary it seemed to take an eternity. She set the chair beneath the small window and climbed up. Pushing the window open as far as it would go, she poked her head through, blinking against the icy bite of the snowflakes blowing directly into her eyes.
There sat Boots...a good seven or eight feet from her, right on the corner of the ledge and too far for Mary to reach her. Great.
"Now look where you've got yourself," Mary sighed. She reached out toward the cat and clucked, rubbing her thumb across her fingertips. "Here, baby. Come to Mama."
Boots totally ignored the cue to walk back down the ledge to the window. Well, at least Boots seemed calmer, though she had to be near half-frozen. Lord only knew how long she'd been out on the ledge.
"Treaties time, Boots. Come get some treats!"
"Boots, you're trying my patience. Get back in here this instance!" Mary ordered. To her dismay, the cat inched back away from her, closer to the end of the ledge. "There, there. Mistakes happen," Mary soothed. "Stay right where you are, Boots. Mama loves you."
Mary leaned her forehead against the windowsill. Think, think, she commanded herself. The window was too small for Mary to climb though and get Boots. But, the same ledge that ran along that side of the building also ran along side of the front of the building. She'd have to just crawl out one of the living room windows and make her way to Boots and then crawl back in.
"The things I do for you, cat. Now, stay perfectly still. Mama's coming to get you."
Mary climbed down from the chair and dashed into the living room. Pushing aside the pillows she had setting on the wide windowsill beneath the living room window, she jumped to the sill and opened the lock. With a mighty shove, she pushed the window open and crawled out onto the ledge.
"Don't look down," she whispered, grabbing the side of the window molding and pulling herself up. It was only four floors, but Mary had never cared too much for heights.
The wind whipped her long brown hair around her face. She pulled it back with one hand while holding tightly to the window with the other. The snow was falling more heavily now: large fluffy flakes that still managed to sting the exposed skin on her face and arms. The ledge was already covered in a couple of inches of the stuff. She glanced down, noticing just then that she hadn't bothered to put on any shoes or boots. Cold moisture was already soaking her thick socks. Thank heavens it had been "casual Friday" at work and she'd worn jeans and a sweater.
"I'm coming, Boots," she said softly, sliding her feet inch by inch across the ledge, her fingers gripping anything they could on the cold brick wall.
She judged it was about ten feet she'd have to maneuver before picking up Boots. Then a longer ten feet back, trying to hang onto the wall and her cat. She managed a couple of feet, then had to stop as the wind gusted strongly around her. Mary took a deep breath and started again. Another couple of feet and another stop. The snow was becoming so thick and wind-driven that it was taking her breath away. She turned her face toward the building and gulped in the frigid air. She began again. Closer. Closer. Almost there.
Mary was just inches away from Boots when she slowly slid down the wall and shakingly reached out a hand to grab Boots.
"YEEOOOOWWW!" the cat screeched just before casually bounding away down the ledge and jumping through the bathroom window.
"Ingrate! You couldn't have done that before I climbed out here?" Mary called. This evening was not turning out the way she'd envisioned it at all. With a sigh of acceptance, she began to inch her way back toward the living room window.
If going toward Boots had been difficult because of the snow and the wind, the return was even worse. The wind continued to gust strongly. The snow came even heavier. It was taking twice as long to return. Mary couldn't feel anything in her toes. Her feet were like lead weights she managed to drag along with her legs. Her nose began to run, though she sniffed constantly. Again, the wind whipped her hair across her face. She pulled it back, shocked to see her fingers chapped and already bleeding.
Just a little farther, she coached herself. Just do it. Just get back inside and you can curl up in a little ball on the couch and get warm in Mom's afghan on the couch. Take a nap and ignore the mess that the snow blowing into the open window was probably making.
Yet, fatigue set in. Mary didn't know if she could take another step. She glanced over at the window-only a few feet away. She wanted to stop for a while, just long enough to regain a bit of strength. Yet, she feared that if she stopped too long that she'd never make it back in.
"Just d-d-d-d-do it." She said between chattering teeth.
Another three feet and the wind gusted strongly, nearing tearing her away from the side of the building and rattling the windows. She shuddered at the close call and jumped at the sound of slamming.
"No," she moaned, glancing over at the window and seeing that the wind had slammed it shut. She slumped against the side of the building for a moment and then walked the remaining distance to the window. Turning carefully, she glanced down inside the apartment. There sat Boots on the sill, casually preening herself.
"T-t-t-traitor. A dog would never have done this to me. You'd better remember that, B-b-b-b-boots."
Mary reached up and pushed on the top of the window. It refused to budge. Carefully rising up on frozen tiptoe, she saw that when the window slammed down shut, the latch had flipped. She was locked out of the apartment. Now what?
"Oh, oh," a voice called from the sidewalk below. "Better call 9-1-1. Looks like we have a jumper."
A jumper? Where? Mary looked to both sides. There was no one but her on the ledge. Surely, the guy didn't mean her?
"I'll call the police," another voice drifted up to her even through the wind. "You better go get the super."