Chapter 131 ~ Instinct

Marissa arrived at Dr. Hart’s clinic promptly at 7:00 a.m., with coffee in hand. Because her advent occurred fifteen days after the initial request, she also brought kolaches. The good doctor made no mention of her tardiness. Coffee in one hand, kolache in the other, he led Marissa to the kennel area, where Queen Nala held court.

She almost didn’t recognize her feline rescue. A few weeks’ time, along with exceptional care and compassion, had all but healed the worst of Nala’s injuries. She’d lost the mangled ear, as Dr. Hart had predicted, but the surrounding flesh had healed to a healthy pink beneath a thin fuzz of new fur. She’d gained a remarkable amount of weight, both from her pregnancy and a steady diet of high nutrient food and fresh water.

Most remarkable, the cat had completely lost her skittish, distrusting nature. As Dr. Hart approached, Nala rose from her nest of blankets, paused for a deep, full body stretch, then rubbed her face against the kennel door. Her back arched in pleasure and a rusty purr rumbled from her soul as the doctor gently scratched her neck with two fingers poked through the wire mesh.

“She looks amazing,” Marissa said, surprised to hear the note of awe in her own voice. She stepped closer to the kennel but refrained from reaching inside.

“There is strength in this one.”

As though agreeing with the doctor’s assessment, Nala pushed against the kennel door and purred with vigor. Dr. Hart shifted his hand to nuzzle the down the cat’s snout, to the sweet spot beneath her chin.

“And she’s more than ready to get out of this place and move into a good home.”

A professional, his tone was impassive, but the good doctor had a soft heart that spoke through his eyes, first shining in hope, then clouding in disappointment when Marissa left the clinic empty handed.

Not long after, Nala’s adoption listing appeared in Marissa’s social media feeds.

Meet Nala. Though she arrived feral, injured and malnourished, she has proven to be strong, loving, and worthy of a royal court. Nala is friendly with other animals and patient with young children. Nala is also an expectant mother of triplets, so her future home must be extremely well-vetted. If you are interested in adopting or fostering, please contact…

“Three baby kitties, huh?” Marissa whispered quietly to herself. “You’re going to have your little paws full, Nala.”

Dr. Hart was good with a camera. The pictures he had included with the post captured Nala’s poise, her bravery. The lighting emphasized her intelligent eyes and downplayed her missing ear. The last image on the post was a screenshot from the cat’s ultrasound, showing three distinct areas, each containing what appeared to be a blurry bean.

Marissa would forever cherish the image of her own blurry bean. The bean she had created by blessed accident one careless night with Jimmy. The blurry bean they had lost in horrific accident on another careless night not long after. The blurry bean that had elicited heartbeats of intense fear, fleeting joy, of shattering sorrow. The blurry bean she had never once held in her arms but could still feel the weight of in her dreams.

“Be good to those beans,” Marissa said in whisper to Nala as she clicked to close the clinic’s web page.

For the rest of the day, she tried to concentrate on work but found her herself returning to the adoption posting again and again.

Most who commented only wanted to share the love, but a few expressed their interest in adoption. Those, Marissa subjected to intense social media scrutiny. Not a single candidate was deemed worthy, in her opinion, of caring for a majestic feline such as Nala, but she knew one would be granted the honor. Likely, before nightfall.

If she were a decent human being, or even remotely confident in her own abilities to care for a living creature, Marissa would have taken Nala home that morning. But she was well aware of her limitations. Her selfishness. Her innate inability to nurture or protect. Even the idea of such responsibility hyped her anxiety and shallowed her breathing.

Luckily, a deep, comfortingly familiar voice startled Marissa from her impending panic. “Hey, there, Marissa.”

“Oh! Hey, Dan.” In quick reflex, as though hiding porn, she clicked the computer mouse to close Nala’s adoption post and change the screen to the banking software she was supposed to be using to do her job. “What’s up with you?”

Amused by her obvious guilt, Dan smiled through his reply. “Nothing much. What’s up with you?”

“Facebooking, on the clock,” she whispered, a quasi-lie. “It’s against the rules.”

Nodding, he motioned to the nearly empty lobby. “It is a busy place.”

Marissa looked past him to the teller counter, where Colleen and Marg stood gossiping with the town librarian, Anita Stoker, who’d stopped in to deposit the day’s late book fines. Retiree Clyde Jones stood at the coffee station, sipping the last of the lukewarm Folgers, waiting to check the balance on his IRA and retell the same, tired stories he’d told a million times before.

“Super busy,” Marissa said. “There’s actually a line.”

“Can you help a guy out? All I need is a cashier’s check.”

“I think I can handle that. Who am I making it out to?”

“Taney Ford in Juliette.” Dan handed her the paperwork with the details. “Figured it’s time Jason had his own company truck.”

An unexpected sense of nostalgia flushed through her chest at the thought of the old gang at Rogan-Handley Construction. “Aw, that’s nice of you, Dan. He’s a really good guy.”

“You should stop by the office sometime and say hi.”

“Yeah, sure,” she said easily.

“Or goodbye.”

Cringing, she sucked in an uneasy breath through her teeth. “Yeah, sorry about the way I left. I never should have accepted the job in the first place. I knew as soon as Jimmy offered it would end in disaster.”

“Not a complete disaster.”

Marissa shrugged, changed the subject. “I hear Stacy had the baby. Congratulations.”

“You want to see a picture?” He had his phone in hand and was halfway around her desk before he finished asking the question.

“Maybe just one or two,” Marissa said with a laugh as Dan sidled up close, providing her a better view of his newborn daughter. “Oh, Dan, she’s gorgeous. What’s her name again?”

“Emily Rose.”

“So pretty.” Marissa scrolled through the photo gallery, marveling over the baby’s bright eyes and long lashes, her curly hair, the squish of her nose when she smiled. “How old is she now?”

“Six weeks today.”

“Six weeks, already? Wow. You know what that means, right?” Marissa teased him with a nudge of her shoulder. “It’s time to start working on baby number two.”

“Wait—what? Now?” Dan stood at attention, his eyes wide, disbelieving. “Like tonight?”

“Tonight?” She backpedaled. “I don’t—I’m not a doctor. I don’t know these things. I just assumed.”

“Yeah, you’re not a doctor. But Stacy is seeing her doctor today.” Dan’s focus appeared to pull inward as he started muttering to himself. “She didn’t say anything about… But she did ask what time I would be home. And she did say she had a special evening planned…”

“Sounds like you best not be late for supper.”

Suddenly frantic, Dan patted his chest and coat pockets, as though searching for something he’d lost. “What time is it?”

Marissa glanced at the large clock on the far wall. “Five to five. Just about closing time.”

“See ya, bye,” he said in a flurry of words and plucked his phone from her hand.

“Hey! What about your cashier’s check?”

Her question fell on deaf ears. In his rush to the door, Dan tripped over a slow-moving Clyde. Marg steadied both men, then blushed crimson in surprise when Dan expressed his thanks with a hearty kiss to her cheek. Then, with a giant wave and a swish of the door, he was gone.

Chuckling to herself, Marissa collected Dan’s paperwork and set about issuing the check so it would be ready when he returned to the bank, and his senses, in the morning. She also refreshed Nala’s adoption post before logging off her computer for the night.

She wasn’t surprised to see the status had changed from ‘Available’ to ‘Adopted.’ She was, however, startled by the burn of tears in her eyes, and the hollowness in her heart.


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