Excerpt - The Cat's out of the Bag | Verso.ink

Excerpt - The Cat's out of the Bag

Love Down Under

By Cynthia Terelst

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First Two Chapters

CHAPTER ONE

Evie

I don’t know how I always got roped into training the new volunteers. Maybe they thought because I was friendly and laughed a lot, I would enjoy it. But I would rather have peace and quiet while I volunteered on Saturday morning at the cat shelter. Sometimes, I preferred the company of animals to that of humans. I didn’t have to hide who I was with them. I never said no, though. Hopefully, this person would last longer than the average two weeks.

As Marjorie walked the new volunteer towards me, I considered him. He looked like he was in his mid-twenties, like me. The first thing I noticed was he could follow instructions. Even though it was hot outside, he managed to wear enclosed shoes. Usually, new volunteers turned up in thongs, which meant they couldn’t do any work. They could only watch me instead.

Stopping, they turned towards a cage as Marjorie explained something to him, allowing me to study him closer. Extending from those work boots were well-tanned, muscular legs, which led up to a nice butt covered in khaki work shorts. I may have been happily single for two years and not on the hunt for a man, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t look and admire.

Seeing he was here on the weekend, it meant he wanted to be here. Some volunteers who attended during the week were only here to fulfil their community service requirements.

They continued towards me.

“Evie, this is Jesse. He is visiting from America and thought he would fill in some time volunteering.”

Jesse held out his hand and smiled. I shook it firmly as he said, “Nice to meet you, Evie.”

“Thanks. You, too,” I replied, trying not to get lost in his blue eyes, which were accentuated by his grey t-shirt.

“I’ll leave you in Evie’s capable hands,” Marjorie said before walking away.

“It’s pretty straightforward. We follow the same routine every day,” I said as I entered one of the cat enclosures.

I took him through the feeding and cleaning routine. He worked beside me and followed every instruction to the letter. It was like he had a photographic memory.

“How long have you been in Australia?”

“Three weeks.”

“Just in Melbourne?” I asked as we started to fill the dry food bowls in the four enclosures at our end of the building.

“Yeah, it looked like a good place to start. It was voted the world’s most liveable city for seven years in a row.”

“Wow, I didn’t know that.”

“And, it has a low population density, which beats living in LA. Three thousand, eight hundred and fifty-eight people per square mile compared to 7,544.”

“Sounds like you did your research.”

He raised his head and looked at me before nodding.

“How long are you staying?”

“I haven’t decided yet. Maybe a few months.”

I tried to imagine being able to stay wherever I wanted for however long I wanted. It would never be possible. What sort of job would allow that?

He asked the next question so quickly I felt like he was trying to deflect the conversation away from himself.

“How long have you volunteered here for?”

“Nearly two years.”

“You must enjoy it.”

“I do. It’s relaxing. The people are nice; we are like a little family. And I enjoy spending time with the cats.”

He watched me while I spoke, nodding when I’d finished.

“See the old ginger cat over there? His name is Mike. He arrived a year after I started.”

“He’s been here a year?” Jesse asked, sounding surprised.

“Yes. We are a no-kill shelter. We keep them until they find a home.”

“Why doesn’t anyone want him?”

“He has a lot of things going against him, poor boy. His age, for starters. He is thirteen now. People are scared to adopt older animals. All they think about is sickness, cost, and death. But older animals give a lot of love. They are chill and less likely to destroy things, unlike kittens.”

“How long do cats live for?”

“Usually, twelve to eighteen years.”

“So, he has a good few years left?”

“Yeah. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do himself any favours. When people come to meet the cats, he doesn’t interact with them. He is partially deaf, so has trouble hearing them call his name. He sits and watches while other cats introduce themselves. By the time he is ready to say hello, the people have moved on. We try to tell them to be patient, but they are more interested in friendly cats.”

“That’s sad,” Jesse said, looking at Mike.

“It is. But at least he is safe here. And we love him.” I sent an affectionate smile Mike’s way.

We continued working side-by-side in companionable silence. The cats lounged around, uninterested in our activity. It impressed me how Jesse never stood back to let me do the work. He helped with everything. I was also impressed with how his muscles flexed when he picked up the heavy bags of cat litter with ease.

When I brought the fresh meat out for the cats, they all jumped to attention. They weaved between our legs meowing, like their sudden desperation would make their food appear in their bowls quicker. One by one, as I put the food in their bowls, they sorted their hierarchy. Mike stood back and waited. I’m sure if cats could roll their eyes, he would have. He knew the food would come, and it didn’t matter if he was first or last. He wasn’t needy.

When we finished our enclosures, I gave Jesse a smile.

“Thanks for your help. It’s easier with two of us. Are you ready for the fun part?”

“Fun part?”

“Yeah, where we interact with the cats. Do you want to join me?”

“Sure.”

“There’s some toys in that basket.”

He moved towards the basket, looked inside, and then back at me. The way he ran his hand through his thick brown hair gave me the impression he didn’t know what to do. It was an ordinary movement, but I couldn’t help noticing the muscles in his upper arm as his sleeve lifted. What was wrong with me?

I turned my attention back to the basket. I didn’t want him to feel uncomfortable, so I said, “Get out one of those sticks with a ribbon on it, and I’ll show you what to do.”

Smiling at me gratefully, he handed me the toy.

“Basically, you need to tease them with the ribbon—like this—to get them interested,” I said as I dangled it in Sally’s face. She was black and sleek. To me, she resembled a graceful lady the way she walked, with her head held high and her elongated body swaying. “When they become alert, their eyes will widen. Then, they will start to attack it.”

Sally grabbed at the ribbon. I pulled it out of her reach, encouraging her to climb the post and chase it. I laughed as she defied gravity, bouncing off the walls to chase the ribbon. When I looked back at Jesse, he was standing next to Mike, patting him, smiling.

“Does Mike like to play?”

“Sometimes. Why don’t you give it a try?”

I watched the pair of them as they played. Mike eagerly reached for the ribbon. When he caught it, he wrestled with it, rolling and biting and clawing. It surprised me how much Mike was interacting with Jesse. Usually, he lost interest after a few minutes. But he played and purred and smooched for at least ten. Jesse was so focused on him, I may as well have not been in the enclosure with them.

After we had given each of the cats some playtime, I said, “You can go now. That’s it for the day.”

He started walking to the door. When I didn’t follow, he turned to me.

“Are you coming?”

“No, I’m staying for a while. I usually end my visit reading to the cats.”

His sky-blue eyes widened. “Read to the cats?”

“Bloody oath,” I said, trying to hold in my grin as he stared at me, scratching his head. I knew what I had just said would confuse him. “It’s an Australian saying. It means, yes, I’m serious.”

I laughed at him, and his eyes crinkled as he laughed in return.

“You guys sure have some weird sayings.”

“You haven’t heard anything yet,” I said, still laughing. “The cats enjoy listening to people read. The rhythmic sound relaxes them. They come and sit with me or on me. It helps them socialise in a non-pressured environment.”

“What do you read?”

I wondered if he was making fun of me, but his face was serious.

“Harry Potter. But they will listen to anything. We’ve introduced the reading program to the local school. The kids love it. Some don’t have pets at home or have never met a cat. You should see their faces when they’re first introduced; it’s like magic. And the teachers have said how much their reading skills have improved. It’s a win-win.”

“That’s excellent. Literacy is important; we need to read and write every day. Thirty-two million adults in America are illiterate.” He paused, looking like he wanted to say more. “I’ll see you next week,” he said instead, turning to leave.

I watched him walk away. His butt filled his shorts nicely. At least there would be something good to look at if he decided to return next week.



CHAPTER TWO


Jesse


I didn’t think I’d enjoy my morning of volunteering as much as I did. Evie was a joy to be around. She chatted, smiled, and laughed the whole morning. Her instructions were as clear as her sparkling blue eyes.

When she suggested I play with the cats, I had no idea what to do. I didn’t have pets growing up. It was another expense we couldn’t afford. And when I got a place of my own, I didn’t even think about buying a pet. Money wasn’t a problem, but I guess I didn’t understand the companionship a pet could bring.

My grandma, who was my biggest supporter, always loved cats. The cats she had were lap cats; they were not active and didn’t play. My grandma was the reason why I decided to volunteer at the cat rescue in the first place. It was to honor her memory and to help me feel close to her.

Evie saw my hesitation when she pointed to the cat toys and was kind in her response. She didn’t look at me like I was stupid. Instead, she showed me what to do without pause. Kindness was a quality to be admired.

As I walked into the office to sign out, Marjorie looked up at me and said, “Did you have a good morning, Jesse?”

“Yes, Evie’s a great teacher,” I replied.

“Thank you for your help. Will we see you again next week?”

“Yes. I’d love to come back. Thank you.”

“Next Saturday is the first Saturday of the month, so we’ll all be going out for lunch. I hope you can join us.”

“That would be great. See you next week.”

When Saturday came again, I was eager to spend time with the cats. I met Evie inside the enclosure. I greeted each cat by name, giving them a quick pat in their favorite spots before getting to work.

Tilting her head, Evie watched me. Her blue eyes, vibrant against her olive skin, regarded me as I started cleaning the litter trays exactly as she had taught me.

“You have a good memory,” she said as she started working beside me, tossing her brown ponytail over her shoulder. She was perceptive. No one had picked up on my memory that quickly before.

“It’s one of my many talents,” I replied casually. I didn’t want to elaborate.

“Did you hear that a literacy foundation gave the cat shelter one hundred thousand dollars to build a reading nook?” She asked, her voice animated.

“Yeah, Marjorie told me when I came in.”

I didn’t need Marjorie to tell me, though, seeing it was my foundation who donated.

“It’s great. More kids will be able to join the program. And they will be able to read in comfort, with nice soft couches or bean bags, and a climate-controlled environment. My gosh, imagine how much extra contact the cats will have.”

“Everyone’s a winner.”

Her eyes were wide, and her smile beamed with excitement. I couldn’t help smiling in return.

“What did you do this week? Did you check out some sights?” Evie asked in her cheerful tone.

“I went to the National Gallery. It was fascinating. Did you know they have over 75,000 pieces of art, and you can download copies of over half of them for free?”

“I didn’t know that. It sure would be a good way to decorate your walls. Did you see any Hans Heysen paintings? I love his use of soft light.”

“Yes, and they had some paintings from Nora, his daughter, too. It was a special exhibition.”

“What was her art like?”

“Impressive. Her use of color was stronger than her father’s. She was the first woman to win the Archibald Prize, and the first Australian woman to be appointed as an official war artist. Her assignment was to show the women’s war effort.”

Evie’s eyes were wide. “I didn’t even know she existed.”

“You wouldn’t believe what one of the headlines was when she won the Archibald.”

Evie stopped working and turned towards me.

“What?”

“Girl Painter Who Won an Art Prize is also a Good Cook.”

Evie’s jaw clenched. “You’re shitting me?”

“Nope. They couldn’t help but make an irrelevant comment about her gender rather than her artistic skills.”

Evie’s face was still hard. “And still, to this day, it feels like perceptions and beliefs have not changed much.”

“They should teach these things in school. Even back then, she was a revolutionary in saying things like ‘there was no reason whatsoever why women should not be as good as painters as men.’”

“A woman after my own heart,” Evie declared. “There is no reason women can’t do anything as good as men.”

She bent back down, sneaking a sideways glance at me as we changed task. I felt like she was checking if I was still following her instructions from last week, but she didn’t comment.

“What did you do this week?” I asked her.

“Worked, mostly. I have a dog walking business.”

That explained her toned legs and tan.

“That’s cool. How does that work?”

“I have an app I use for client bookings and to create schedules for the walkers. I’ve tried to optimize over time; travelling time used to have a big effect on how many dogs we could walk. Most of our work is in apartment buildings now. I can usually get a full day’s work out of one or two buildings. It reduces travel time and increases profit.”

I nodded. It was a smart way to run a business. A lot of time poor, white-collar workers would opt-in. The statistics on pets living in apartments was interesting. I learnt about them when deciding where to stay during my Australian visit. I wasn’t looking at pets in particular, but wanted to know about the density of living in the major cities, which then drew the facts and figures out for pets. I knew there were over 279,000 apartments in Victoria. At ninety-four percent, 262,000 of those were in the city. On average, thirty-eight percent of households own dogs. The percentage would likely be lower for apartments. Working with a conservative estimate of ten percent, you would be looking at 26,000 dogs. That’s a lot of dogs needing walks.

My mind worked fast. The pause in conversation was short.

“That’s smart business. There must be at least 26,000 dogs in the dog walking pool in Melbourne alone. You must be busy.”

She regarded me again with those thoughtful eyes.

“I’m turning away clients all the time. I could expand, but I don’t like to complicate things.”

Like many Australians I’d met so far, she was easy-going and averse to adding stress to her life. I liked their way of thinking. Part of the reason I was in Australia was to re-evaluate where I was going in life. My grandma often reminded me I needed to do what made me happy. I could afford to do that now. I just needed to figure out what it was that made me happy. I didn’t have a chance to explore different interests growing up. My parents only had one interest for me to follow. Money.

When we finished cleaning, Evie gave me one of her big smiles. “We have fifteen minutes before we head off for lunch. How about you stay in here and play with the cats while I put this stuff away?”

“Are you sure? I’m happy to help you.”

“Nah, she’ll be right.”

Another one of those quirky Australian sayings? Was the she, she was referring to, herself?

As she disappeared, I got a toy and encouraged some running and jumping. To add to the fun, I added some commentary like we were playing a Quidditch match. I joined the running and jumping. Feeling light-hearted, I laughed. I didn’t realize Evie had returned until I saw her standing at the door, smiling at me.

“Harry Potter fan, are you?”

“Who isn’t?” I said, shrugging.

“Only people with no brains. Are you ready?”

“Sure am.”

*

I walked with Evie and the other volunteers to the local pub. I learned early on that a pub is like an American bar, except they’re family-friendly, and it’s not just about watching sports on TV. The pub scene is part of Australian culture. A few times, when I’d met people while out surfing, they’d invite me to the pub afterward. We’d have a meal or some beers and chat.

I watched Evie as we walked along. She had so much energy it was like every step incorporated a bounce. She talked to everyone, from the older ladies and their husbands to the younger volunteers. At one point, she turned around, her long brown hair flowing with the movement, and looked back. When her eyes fell on me, she smiled and then resumed her conversation. My skin warmed at her gaze.

“Evie’s nice, isn’t she?” Marjorie asked from beside me, her brown eyes watching me.

I blushed when I realized she had been watching me watching Evie.

“She is. She’s friendly and laughs a lot. She is not afraid to say what she thinks about women’s rights,” I said, remembering her reaction to the news headline.

Clarissa, an older lady with a blue tint in her hair, said, “When she started with us two years ago, she was very sad and troubled. She’d a bad breakup and was struggling.”

“Clarissa,” Marjorie chided, “Don’t speak out of turn.”

Ignoring Marjorie, Clarissa continued, “She sure has turned things around. She has her own business and loves the animals she works with. The repeat business she gets is a testament to her dedication.” Lowering her voice, she added, “She is so independent and happy knowing her life is complete without a man, but it would be nice to see her with one.”

“Clarissa, enough. Jesse doesn’t want to hear your gossip.”

I looked at Evie, thinking Jesse was indeed happy to listen to Clarissa’s gossip. But I knew it was wrong and was ashamed at the thought. It should be Evie’s choice to share that information with me. But I was curious to know what could have caused her to be so broken. And how she rebuilt herself.

Strength. Resilience. Kindness. Happiness. Everything everyone should strive for. Everything Evie had.

When we got to the pub, Clarissa took over the seating arrangements, making sure Evie and I were seated together. I grinned to myself as I saw Marjorie rolling her eyes at her.

The pub had a homely atmosphere. Wooden furniture made it feel warm and welcoming. Luscious plants hung from the ceiling, giving the feeling of being in a living space. Light filtered in from skylights, adding to the warm ambience.

“It’s nice here,” I said to Evie.

“As flash as a rat with a gold tooth.”

When I looked at her blankly, she laughed. I was sure she got pleasure out of confusing me with Australian sayings.

“It was a bit of a dump before, a rat, but they have put a lot of effort into impressing us and changing our perception, the gold tooth.”

Evie and I shared the menu. She flicked the pages back and forth. My fingers grazed hers as we both reached to turn a page, and a quick spark lit my fingertips.

“I can’t decide. What are you getting?” she asked.

“I thought I’d give the kangaroo with quandong a try.”

“That sounds good. Let’s go up and order. I’ll decide when we get there,” she said, getting up and handing the menu over to Marjorie.

As we stood in line, she bounced on her toes. It was like she could hardly contain her energy; she had to keep moving. Maybe she was nervous. Last week, when I watched her reading to the cats, she stayed quite still.

“Have you decided yet?”

“No. I love beef. What sort of steaks were there again?”

I recited the menu.

“How much is the three-hundred-gram rump?”

“Twenty-five dollars.”

When she smiled astutely at me, I realized she was testing me. Perceptive, and cunning. I tensed. I didn’t like people knowing about my exceptional memory. Once they knew, they treated me differently. They either wanted to exploit me or make me do party tricks. And when they found out about my money, they were worse. I wanted people to like me for me. Being here was that chance.

“That was sneaky,” I said, as she studied me closely.

“Just testing a hunch,” she said, giving me a knowing smile. “Don’t worry. Your secret is safe with me.”

I hoped so.

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About Cynthia Terelst

Cynthia Terelst is a project officer by day and a writer by night. She is a contemporary romance writer who likes to share a little bit of history, some Australian scenery and a whole lotta love. Cynthia does not shy away from difficult topics, as she feels that they should not be ignored.

She lives in Queensland, Australia, where the sun shines at least 283 days a year.

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