Never Be the Same: Chapter Two

Acclimating

“Well, that’s the last shelter in town.” Sierra set her phone on the counter. She glanced at the cat curled up on her loveseat, tail wrapped around his paws. “No one’s reported you missing, pequeño.” At least, not through proper channels. She thought about the man who’d been asking about a missing cat last night and shuddered. If he was the owner, he hadn’t bothered to call any shelters asking about his pet. He hadn’t posted any fliers around town as far as she could tell, or on any of the missing pet websites. Either he’s not trying that hard to find his “special” cat, or the cat’s not really his. “If you wanted to go with him, you could have found him, couldn’t you?”

The cat stared at her.

She took that as answer and shrugged. Cats were smart enough to avoid people they didn’t trust. She grabbed her purse and keys and the cat let out a questioning meow. “It’s okay, I’m just going to the store. Saturday’s shopping day for me. Besides, if you’re going to stay here, I’ll need to get you a litter box. Also, some proper food. I can’t keep feeding you tuna. That’s not good for you.” This was greeted by another meow, sounding somewhat indignant. Sierra laughed, imagining he was objecting to the idea of “proper” cat food. “Don’t worry,” she assured him, “nothing canned or dry. I can’t stand the smell of that stuff. My abuela always made food for Alma’s kitties. I remember how, and I did a little research this morning to brush up. Only good stuff for you, promise.” It was her habit to spend Sunday cooking, preparing meals for the week ahead. Otherwise she tended to fall into the trap of just picking something up on the way home from the office. Sierra doubted making food for the cat would be much extra work.

He sat up, kneading at the chair cushion for a moment, tail moving back and forth in a slow sway as he seemed to consider this. After a minute he huffed and lay back down, curling up in a small ball, with his nose tucked under a paw. “I guess that means I’m dismissed,” she laughed. “Try not to wreck the place while I’m gone.”

~**~

“Miss Espina! I need to talk to you!”

Sierra squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath, then turned around with as pleasant a smile as she could muster. “Mrs. Davis, hello,” she said. “What can I do for you?” She wasn’t at all in the mood for her nosy neighbor’s drama, but she’d learned not long after moving into the building that Mrs. Davis would not be denied once she got a notion in her head.

“It’s that cat of yours! Something has to be done!”

Sierra blinked. “I already cleared him with the landlord,” she said, going on the defensive. She thought Mrs. Davis liked cats. Besides, he’d been here for a whole week. It wasn’t like her to take that long with a complaint.

“It’s not that,” the woman scowled. “You need to stop leaving the television on for him while you’re gone. Or at least turn down the volume. All week it’s been blaring right through the day. Highly unacceptable!”

“I don’t leave the TV on,” Sierra said, brow furrowing in confusion. To demonstrate, she opened the door, gesturing to the object in question. Its screen was blank and silent. Pequeño slipped outside and circled Sierra’s legs in greeting.

Mrs. Davis peered at the television and frowned. “Well, the radio then.” She glanced around, as if looking for the offending object, determined to have her say.

“I don’t have a radio.”

“Who doesn’t have a radio?” Mrs. Davis turned a suspicious glare on her.

Sierra pulled her phone out of her pocket and waved it at Mrs. Davis. “Us kids these days and our darned gadgets,” she said, offering a sweet smile. “I can also use my computer to listen to music, but I don’t leave that on for him either.” Also, it’s in the room on the other side of the apartment from our shared wall, so there’s no way you could hear it unless it was on full blast.

“Hmph. Well he must be turning it on somehow while you’re out. Stepping on the remote control or something.”

Sierra glanced down at the cat, who sat beside her and wrapped his tail around his paws, the picture of innocence. Suspicious in a cat, granted. But still, Mrs. Davis was reaching. Sierra looked back up, raising an eyebrow. “And what, he turns it back off before I get home?” She didn’t bother to point out that the remote was nestled in a basket on the end table, not exactly in a position for the cat to just wander over it in his prowling.

Mrs. Davis huffed again and crossed her arms. “I know what I heard, and it’s unacceptable. Make it stop, or I call Kensington.” She stormed off without glancing back, slamming the door to her apartment.

“Okay, then,” Sierra muttered, rolling her eyes as she went inside. Pequeño stood up, placing his front paws on her leg, and meowed. She smiled down at him, scratching behind his ears. “I know, you’re hungry. Let’s get you fed. Then I need to change and head out.” A questioning meow sounded. “I have a date tonight,” she explained. “Kyle from work set me up with a friend of his. She’s a clerk at the courthouse.” She wrinkled her nose as a wave of nerves fluttered through her stomach. Blind dates were not her thing, but Kyle just wouldn’t shut up about this girl. Crap, what was her name? “Kelsi!” Sierra remembered, snapping her fingers. “Her name is Kelsi.” With an “i”, she thought, fighting the urge to roll her eyes. Kyle had been very specific about that. Sierra reminded herself not to pre-judge.

While the cat ate, she went into her bedroom to change. He peeked his head into the room when she was standing in front of the mirror, trying to decide if she was happy with her outfit. “What do you think?” she asked the cat as he settled on the end of the bed. He looked at her closely, taking in her jersey dress and ankle boots. Maybe she was just projecting, but his answering meow sounded approving. “Yeah, I think I like it, too.” She brushed out her hair one more time, then slid on a beaded necklace and some oversized wooden bracelets. A quick touch up to her makeup and she was ready to declare herself done. “Wish me luck, Pequeño,” she said as she slipped the essentials into her going out purse. He circled around her ankles and let out a loud purr of encouragement. Sierra knelt down to look at him and, trying to keep a straight face, wagged a finger at him, saying with mock sternness, “You be good while I’m gone, and if you must watch TV, be sure to keep it down, all right?”

Pequeño reached out a paw and batted at her moving finger.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Sierra laughed. She gave him one last scratch behind the ears and left. Reaching her car, she let out a wistful sigh. Of course she would get a prime parking spot when she had to leave again. By the time she got back from her date, she’d probably have to make do with a spot on the far end of the lot, nowhere near the building’s entrance. Oh well. At least it was a warm evening, and the moon was supposed to be full. She glanced around the lot, wondering how many of her neighbors were in for the night, and her eyes landed on a shiny black sports car backed into a space not far away. Sleek and new, it was incongruous tucked in among the pickups and SUVs that filled the lot. The few sports cars around here tended to be older, “classics” and muscle cars, with the occasional new Mustang or Camaro thrown into the mix. She couldn’t even begin to guess the make of this one, but it definitely stood out. The weird thing was, she’d seen it before. This was the fourth time this week she’d noticed it parked in the lot or on the street across from the building. She shook her head as she got in her car. “Guess somebody either came into some money or started dating someone loaded,” she mused as she pulled out. She amused herself by trying to guess who it might be as she drove to the restaurant, and tried not to be unsettled when she kept coming up empty.

~**~

Kelsi was cute, with a button nose and a heart-shaped face, and not a strand of her blond hair out of place. Her nails were perfectly manicured, and though she only had a few inches of height on Sierra, she was slim enough to give the impression of being even taller. Sierra thought it might have ramped up her own insecurities if Kelsi wasn’t also so damned nice. “Howdy!” She greeted Sierra with a big hug and a smile that seemed more sincere than it had any right to be. “Goodness, look at you, aren’t you lovely! Kyle’s told me a little about you, of course, but I want to hear all about you from you. Oh look, they’ve got our booth ready!” She hooked her arm through Sierra’s and led her across the restaurant. Sierra had lived in Texas long enough that she’d stopped really noticing people’s accents, but Kelsi’s was so thick that it was impossible to miss. “I hope you like barbecue! I’m starving. They have the best brisket here.”

“Brisket sounds good,” Sierra agreed as she settled into the booth and pulled out a menu.

It didn’t take her long to decide she liked Kelsi, but by about five minutes after they’d placed their orders, Sierra had also realized there wasn’t much in the way of chemistry between them. She found herself wondering why the hell Kyle had thought they might make a good match. Fortunately, Kelsi seemed to be on the same wavelength.

“Kyle fancies himself a match-maker, you know,” she confided as she took a sip of her margarita, “but he’s really terrible at it. I mentioned I was looking into online dating and he told me he had someone I should meet first.” She offered Sierra an apologetic smile. “I think his thought process was ‘lady who likes ladies, hey, I know another one of those!’ and well, here we are.”

“Here we are.” Sierra returned the smile and took a pull from her beer, shrugging. “It could be worse. Have you known him long?”

“Kyle? Oh, gosh, since we were kids. We grew up next door to each other, then I went away to Houston for school. I just moved back to Bowieville about a month ago. Been trying to get out there and meet new people. What about you, Sierra? I’m guessing you didn’t grow up here in Bowieville?”

“Nope. Miami, when I was little. We moved to Austin when my mamá got offered a job there.”

“Ooh, Austin’s fun. Although I bet Miami was nice. Do you miss it? Ever go back to visit?”

“Not really,” Sierra shrugged. “Abuela moved with us, and my abuelo passed when I was a baby, so we don’t have any family there. My papá’s family is still in Honduras, and we visit them sometimes.”

Their food arrived and there was a break in the conversation as they set to eating. Sierra had to admit, the brisket was good.

“Well,” Kelsi said as she dragged a fry through some ketchup, “I don’t think either one of us thinks this is a love match, but how would you feel about still catching the movie after we eat? I’ve been dying to see it, and I need to let this settle before I drive anywhere anyway,” she tapped her margarita. “What do you say? My treat.”

“I think a movie sounds nice,” Sierra agreed. She’d been looking forward to it too, after all, and the company wasn’t bad, if not what she had hoped for. They wrapped up the meal, and Sierra snatched the check before Kelsi could get to it, figuring that if she wasn’t paying for the movie, she could spring for dinner. They walked across the street to the theater, chatting amicably, and Kelsi insisted on buying them drinks and candy before they found their seats.

Afterward, Kelsi gave her another huge hug. “Thank you for a fun night, Sierra. I’d like to think I’ve at least gotten a new friend out of the evening?”

“Sure,” Sierra agreed. “You’ve got my number. Give me a call if you want to do something.”

“I will. Maybe I’ll come see this band of yours. Kyle says you’re fantastic.”

“Sounds good.” They parted ways and Sierra headed home, contentment at a nice evening mostly overriding the disappointment of the failed date. As she walked across the apartment building’s parking lot, she noticed that the black sports car was still there. “Well,” she muttered to herself with a smirk, “at least someone got lucky tonight.”

~**~

“Miss Espina!”

Sierra bit back a groan and resisted the urge to bang her head against the door. “Yes ma’am?” She managed to get out. She tried to think of a polite way to excuse herself from whatever it was Mrs. Davis wanted. She was already running late for practice. “If it’s about the cat again–“

“What? No, no. He’s been keeping it down this past week, that’s fine. I wanted to ask if you’ve been having any problems with your water.”

“I–what?” Sierra was so busy trying to sort through her neighbor’s implication that her cat was actively watching television at a low volume that it took a moment for the question to register. “My water? No. Why?”

“Hmph. I didn’t think so. I told them in the office that no one called for a plumber. We all know to go through Kensington for that.”

Sierra turned the rest of the way around to face Mrs. Davis. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, some workman has been turning up all week. Says he’s got a work order to fix some plumbing on the second floor. He told the office that he didn’t know the apartment number, though. Tried it with three different receptionists, but they all called me since I’m the only one on the floor at home during the day.” She shook her head. “I’ve asked everybody else, and none of them called. I told the office that young man either has the wrong building or he’s up to no good. Probably a thief.” Her eyes narrowed and she turned away, dismissing Sierra and muttering, “I’ve been telling Kensington we need more security on the building. Just wait until he hears about this. He’ll have to do something now.”

Sierra shook her head and slipped into her apartment. “You know, Pequeño,” she greeted the cat, “I don’t think Mrs. Davis is all there.” He meowed in agreement, rubbing against her legs. Her eyes fell on the clock in the kitchen and she swore. “Mierda! I am so late!” She sprinted into the kitchen, ignoring the yowl of protest from the cat as the leg he’d been leaning against disappeared, causing him to stumble. “Sorry, kitty! But I’ve got to go!”

~**~

“Ay, dios mio, this is exactly what I needed,” Sierra breathed as she took a long drink from the beer Intira handed her. “Gracias.”

“No problem,” Intira said with a grin. “One of those days, huh?” She dropped onto the beat up sofa next to Sierra, kicking her feet up on the coffee table in front of them.

“One of those weeks,” Sierra said, taking another swallow. Cammy settled down on her other side and she shifted to lean her head on her friend’s shoulder.

Bobby joined them, setting another six-pack on the table before sitting in the armchair across from the sofa. “What’s up? Everything okay with your folks? Or is it work?”

“Familia’s fine,” she said waving a hand in dismissal. “Work’s…well. It’s work.” She shrugged. “I mean, the boss is even more demanding than usual because he’s up for review next month. And Kyle keeps bugging me about giving Kelsi another chance. He seems to have decided we’re meant for each other, even though neither one of us thought there was a spark there.”

“Oh, love,” Cammy kissed the top of her head and gave her a one-armed hug.

“I’m fine, Cammy,” Sierra said. “We had a good time. Just no magic, you know?” Cammy choked on her drink and Sierra moved so she could sit up. When she was sure her friend was okay, she added, “I mean there’s other stuff too. I’ve been getting hangup calls in the office all week, which is weird, and then there’s Mrs. Davis.”

“What’s that old biddy up to now?” Intira asked with a smirk. She took perverse pleasure in the horror stories her apartment-dwelling friends had about their neighbors.

Sierra rolled her eyes and explained about her earlier run-in with the woman. “Also, she thinks Pequeño is watching television while I’m gone. As in, turning it on by himself and turning it off before I get home.”

“Does she now?” Cammy asked with an arched brow as Intira nearly fell off the couch laughing.

“You are not calling the cat that, are you?” Bobby interjected. “Seriously? Pequeño? That cat is huge.”

“Well, not compared to me,” Sierra defended herself. “Besides, that’s not really his name. I just haven’t been able to find one that feels right, yet.”

“He do that?” Intira asked, gesturing at a long scratch on the back of Sierra’s hand.

Sierra glanced down. “Oh. Yes, but it wasn’t on purpose. I was carrying him across the room the other day and stopped to look out the window. He just freaked out. Fought to get out of my arms and tore off toward the bedroom. I never really noticed it before then but he hates windows. Never goes near them. Every cat I’ve ever known loves to sit in them and stare at the birds and squirrels. But not mine.” She sighed.

“Leave it to you to find the weird-ass cat,” Intira laughed.

“I am so glad you’re the one who took him home and not me,” Bobby said shaking his head.

“He’s a good kitty,” Sierra argued. “He’s just…special.”

“Uh huh,” Intira said. She finished her beer and stood, clapping Sierra on the shoulder. “Come on, let’s get the practice going. Play the stress away, right?”

“Right,” Sierra agreed, accepting Bobby’s hand as he offered one to help her up. “You coming, Cammy?”

Cammy appeared lost in thought, her lips pursed and head tilted to one side. She jumped at the question. “What? Oh, yes.” She smiled at Sierra as she stood. “Practice. To work, then.”

~**~

Sierra had to admit, Intira had the right idea. Play the stress away, indeed. She was feeling much better as she climbed the stairs. When she reached her door, she was wondering how she could fit in some extra practice time on her bass without upsetting her neighbors. It took her a moment to realize Pequeño hadn’t come to greet her as soon as she stepped inside. The next thing she noticed was the draft. She took a few steps toward the window and stopped short when she saw it had been smashed open.

“You lied, signora,” growled a voice behind her. Something hard and heavy crashed into the bass strapped across her back and she fell to the floor with a cry. Before she could roll over or push herself up, a weight pressed down on her, pinning her to the ground. “It is not nice to lie. You will give me the cat.”

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