This story is by Antonia Juel and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Fiona emptied her cup of its last cold tea. She closed her laptop on the tedious spreadsheets and rested her chin in her hands. Another day of working from home here in Chicago. Another lonely evening lay before her. An evening spent under a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate.
She missed her garden. Back in England, autumn would have meant harvest time. Baskets of cabbage, carrots, onions, even pumpkins, would sit in rows on her kitchen counter. Her eyes drifted to the lone, wilting tomato plant on her balcony–that was all time afforded her these days with her busy schedule.
She laughed. “Just me and a tomato plant. What an exciting life I lead.” Sighing, she leaned her head against the sofa and closed her eyes.
The steady tapping of raindrops against the window had faded into the background when she heard a clunk and a clatter from the balcony. Fiona frowned and rose. What now? Had a bird decided to take cover from the rain under her patio furniture?
A furry, orange head with yellow eyes shot up from the balcony floor to press its nose against the door glass. She jumped.
How had a cat made its way onto her balcony? She opened the door and the cat retreated, curling up against the rail. Heavy drops pelted her from above and soaked through her thin shirt. A brisk autumn wind blew in from Lake Michigan. She shivered.
“Here, kitty. Where did you come from? Oh, look at you, little friend. You’re drenched.”
She crouched and moved closer, extending a hand to the cat.
“Don’t be afraid. I’m not going to harm you.”
She made her way towards the cat. It scowled in feigned protest but allowed her to pick it up. A name tag hung from its collar.
“Nakōdo,” she read. “Is that your name? What does it mean?”
The animal gave her a blank stare, wrenched free of her arms and took a leap up to the top of the balcony rail.
“No! It’s wet! You’ll fall.”
Too late. The cat slid off the rail but grabbed hold of Fiona’s favorite autumn decoration: a glass lantern filled with pine cones and little orange pumpkins. The animal fought to climb up but only rocked the hanging ornament and slipped on the wet glass. Its claws clung to the metal seam for just a moment. The cat’s eyes grew wide and Fiona watched as it fell towards the street.
As if in a dream, a dark-haired man on the street below looked up, raised his arms and caught the cat.
“I’ve got him,” the man yelled, straining to hold the squirming cat. “He’s okay.”
“Crap,” Fiona said, then called to the man, “I’m coming.” She hurried inside, checked her hair, and ran down the building’s main staircase. Within moments, she was on the street.
She took the animal from the man’s grip. It put one wet and dirty paw on her cheek while the other three made brown stains all over her cream-colored shirt. Great. What an amazing impression she must make on this passer-by.
“I’m sorry,” she told the man and tried for an apologetic smile. “He isn’t even my cat. I don’t know how he got up to the second floor.”
As she met the man’s eyes, her breath caught in her throat. Those deep brown eyes–had she seen them before? Did she know him?
“I hope he’s alright.” He smiled, sending another jolt through Fiona’s body. She tried to find a reply, but the cat decided then was a good time to use its claws to break free.
“Ow! Well, go then!”
The beast took cover in the recess of the doorway, well out of their reach, and began licking its coat dry.
“I think he’s okay. I’m Fiona.” She offered her hand, then realized it was covered in wet cat hair and hesitated.
The man gave her a lopsided grin and showed her his palm. It looked the same as hers–covered in little orange hairs.
“I’m Chayton.” He gripped her hand firmly.
She took a deep breath. Skin contact. How long since she had been touched by someone? She managed a shaky smile.
“Thank you for saving the cat, whoever owns him,” she said and racked her brain for clues about the man’s identity. His name told her nothing. Did she recognize him from anywhere? Work, perhaps? Or school? He had the kind of handsome, ageless face that could be that of someone ten years her junior, ten years her senior, or anything in between.
No, she didn’t think she knew him. It had probably been a trick of the light or–she scoffed at herself–her soul reaching for the company of another. Goodness. Months of loneliness in this country, an ocean away from England, were beginning to mess with her mind.
“It was nothing. I’m glad I could help.” He flashed white teeth in a brief smile.
Fiona nodded faintly and waved goodbye as the man began making his way down the street. His well-fitting trench coat flapped in the bitter wind. Cold little rivulets of raindrops made their way down her scalp as she watched him depart. Why had he seemed so familiar? And why did she feel like she had just lost something precious?
Shattering glass behind her made her jump. Instinctively she threw up her arms and took a step away. But where she had expected solid ground, she found none. Her leg folded and she slammed into the street. A passing car splashed a wave of icy cold water across her back.
Fiona tried to get up but red, hot pain shot through her left foot and wrist. She gasped and did her best to scramble away from the traffic. But when a blaring horn sounded, she looked up to see the front of an oncoming Chicago Transit bus. She froze.
“Fiona!” Someone called her name.
Strong hands grabbed her around the waist and pulled her from the path of the bus just as it plowed by. She stared at the large, spinning wheels, splashing their way over the exact spot she’d sat mere moments ago.
“You saved my life.” She whispered the words between chattering teeth.
“Are you alright?”
“I think so. What happened?” She looked around. There, in a wide circle of shattered glass lay a crumpled heap of metal, surrounded by pine cones and little orange pumpkins. From the balcony rail above hung a thin metal hook with nothing attached.
“My lantern. How did that crazy cat manage to wrest it free?” Fiona swept a strand of dripping hair out of her face and laughed weakly. The mysterious cat still sat it the doorway and watched them in stoic silence.
“Can you get up?” Chayton offered his hand. Fiona took it and got to her feet. Her left ankle throbbed but held her weight.
“Do you want me to help you get inside?” His eyes were wide with concern.
She wanted to say yes–to get him to stay just a little longer–but she made herself shake her head. Never let a stranger into your home, she reminded herself.
“I’m alright,” she assured him.
“Well, if you’re sure,” Chayton said, hesitating.
She nodded, meeting his eyes only in brief glances. “Thank you for saving my life.”
For several seconds he stood there, holding her hand in his. Then he, too, nodded, squeezed her hand and let go.
“Take care.” He took a few steps backwards and raised his hand in goodbye. For the second time that day, Fiona stood in the rain and watched him go. She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering as the cold wind tore at her wet clothes.
No. This wasn’t right.
“Chayton. Wait,” she called after him, heart pounding. “Would . . . would you want to meet over lunch tomorrow?”
“I would love to.”
Neither of them paid any attention when Nakōdo the cat trotted off, soaking wet but tail held high. Already he had his eyes set on another building–on a balcony belonging to a man living alone.