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“Between the Whiskers” by Nikki Hyson

Between the Whiskers

Nikki Hyson

“Attention Wal-Mart shoppers. The time is now—”

I sighed, breath ruffling my whiskers. Everything was a joke with this one.

Cass, manager of Bailey’s Discount Emporium, didn’t take it as lightly. “Matt!”

The redhead brayed loudly, hand not quite covering the phone he held. Echoes of his amusement rolled over the sales floor, penetrating my hidey hole. I couldn’t help it. My lip curled, tail twitching.

Not that he’d notice. Matt seemed to only focus on the ridiculous and the sublime. The later often secured me a bite of sardines on crackers, so I was willing to forgive the audible intrusion.

“Sorry.” Patting a hand to the air separating him from my frustrated girl. “Sorry.”

Cassandra. Cass. Never Cassie. My girl. She sucked in what should have been fuel for a long suffering sigh, swallowed it, and shook her head. “Just make the announcement. Correctly.”

Turning his back to her, presumably to stem the possibility of further laughter, Matt lifted the receiver back to his mouth.

Curious, I raised my head from two immaculate, white-tipped paws. Would he be able to resist a repeat performance? Even though Cass only brought me to work one night a week, I paid attention. I listened. Statistically, the odds weren’t in his favor.

Before a word could be uttered, Cass snatched me from the bookshelf behind the cash register. Cuddling me close, she dropped a kiss to the velvet between my ears. Her fingers reaching the spot only she could find, my engine fired. I purred. She swayed slowly from side to side.

“Attention shoppers. The time is now 7pm and we are closed for the evening. At this time—”

Jen neared, “Cass, where do you want me to set up the scanners and such?”

I nearly hissed at the intrusion, but the younger woman was an ally. Against Him. They all were. I made sure of it the day Cass tried to hide her bruises with a too baggy sweater. One perfectly timed rub to lift the sleeve cuff and—

Cass, blessedly, didn’t stop her ministrations. “Let’s clear off that table. Stack the dishes with the rest of the china. And did you order enough food?”

Jen, a quiet girl who petted me only when she thought no one was watching, nodded. “One cheese, one veggie, and a supreme. They said we could be the last order.”

“Good. We’ll just take home the leftovers.”

“—and thank you for shopping Bailey’s Discount Emporium.” The intercom clicked off.

Cass surveyed the sales floor from her vantage point. I loved that about her. If there had been a mouse, she’d have found it. But there wasn’t. I already checked.

On a rainy Tuesday night there weren’t any customers either. Satisfied, she found Matt’s eye. “Lock up. Check the bathrooms to be sure.”

She set me down reluctantly, fingers still ruffling my fur as she pulled away. “Okay, Pyewacket. We’ve inventory to do. Behave.”

I couldn’t help a smirk. I loved her, but did she really think I could behave? Clearly she needed to watch more of those videos scrolling down her social media page. Cats leaping from the shadows to scare the daylights out of dogs and humans alike. Hilarious.

“Tick tock, folks. Huddle up!” Cass rifled through the pages Jen had laid out. Nodding to herself, she shuffled them into separate groups.

Wood fibers scratching together, my ears instantly twitched. It was noted. A swift crumple crunch of loose leaf and my back arched, tail curling. Just before a different paper ball thwacked me in the back of the head. Spinning, I glared death to the one who’d dared. Matt. Of course. Hissing curses unknown to mortal man, I snatched the offending projectile and fled to my lair.

Some time later the aroma of food penetrated the depths of my favorite area in the store. Furniture. My sofa was still here. And I was sooo comfortable. But, I knew that delicious siren song of smells. Pizza.

They’d taken a break near the karaoke machines and musical instruments; a section of the store I little understood.

“Come on, Cass. Can we?” Matt asked, setting his paper plate on the floor and nudging it my way. I knew from past inventories he never left that much cheese on his crust. Penance? Glorious cheese. Crouching low, I stalked my prey.

Cass laughed. A real laugh. The first since Him. I couldn’t help but look her way. “Alright,” she said. “But only three songs, and then we get back to work.”

Matt moved. To clear the plates? Panicking, I pounced. And ran. But not far. There would be more. Five minutes later, when the karaoke machine hummed loudly to life, I doubted my decision.

Matt slipped the mic from its stand. Oh. He meant business. Would this be a new declaration later? He seemed to change his mind almost weekly. I want to be a writer. I want to be a pilot. Backing up under the folding chair, I dragged my kill a few feet into the shadows.

Music started, not too loudly, but that was a lie. It grew in volume. Quickly. Still, the guy had some moves and his singing didn’t raise a hair. Must be on key. I scooted a little forward to make sure no one was moving to pick up the plates yet.

The other two only watched. Cheering, laughing, but neither girl moved to join him at the machine.

In the silence after the fourth song, Cass’ phone made one of those weird chimes that always makes me want to push it in the swirling water bowl while she’s in the bath. Chirping in her hand, I can do little.

Cass tilted it to read the message, smile vanishing before she finished. From here I can see the bruises on her wrist, even after all these days, and a growl rises up my throat. Him.

Whether she can hear my growl or feel my gaze, our eyes meet. Her other hand falls to cover the green smudges on too pale skin.

Jen, chair scooted close, glanced from the phone to my girl. It was Jen I made sure saw the bruises. And it was Matt I sought out when Jen hid in the stock room to cry over it.

Jen understands. She knows. “Greg?” She flinches. “Still?”

Yes. Greg. Him. Still. So many of Cass’ girlfriends talk about “the one that got away”. I don’t understand the tears. Be glad. This one. This Ex, as her mom calls him, won’t stay gone.

Chewing my crust I pretend it’s Him. My whiskers twitch. Yes. My girl has bruises from that night. That night she cried out for help and I was there. He had her; back pressed against the balcony rail.

But I was there.

And his face isn’t so pretty anymore.

A knock on the glass door.

Matt slid the mic back in the stand. Leaving the girls to tidy up, he stepped away from us and towards the front door.

Cass interceded. “I’ve got it, Matt,” she said, moving towards the darkened storefront. The first time she’s slipped into shadows since—.

Matt lets her, but keeps walking towards the door, pausing only at the register. Jen, flanking the other side, waits for Cass to get the keys. Neither friend says a word. They wait and watch. Just like I follow her up to the door, one shoulder nudging her shin. It won’t happen again.

Tall, dark in the shadows, a white smile reveals the intruder’s identity. James. I feel my girl relax. She unlocked the door.

Water sluicing from him, he stepped onto the welcome mat. Too wet for my taste, I leapt back hissing. He only smiles; indulgent with me and sheepish with her. He’s been hanging about almost as long as I have. Since before Greg. I know him. He’ll walk us home. Stay until her door lock clicks.

Maybe. One day.

If he be worthy.

He’ll remember I like barley grass.

Shedding the bulky raincoat, James lets Cass claim it. Only to stop her, “Wait.” Fishing in one pocket, “Don’t want to crush it.” And then the other. “I got that stuff Pye likes. Barley grass?”

© 2015 Nikki Hyson

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