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AN UNINVITED GUEST
Kat Wolfe awoke with a stiff neck and the creeping sensation that she was not alone.
She held her breath. Had she heard something or hadn’t she? Then it came again—a faint metallic scraping. Kat relaxed. The latch on the kitchen window was loose. It jiggled with every shift of wind.
Struggling upright, she rearranged the cushions and rescued the duvet from the floor. For the third night running, she’d fallen asleep on the sofa waiting for her mum to come home. Friday evenings were frantic at the city veterinary practice where Dr. Ellen Wolfe worked, and her bosses, Edwina Nash and Vince Craw, insisted that their underlings (Kat’s mother and two harried nurses) take full advantage of it.
Today was Valentine’s Day, not as madly busy as Christmas or Halloween, but a close second to Easter. Kat could picture her mum bent over the operating table, fighting to save the life of a Labradoodle puppy that had swallowed a boxful of chocolate hearts or a diamond ring, or patching up a Maine coon singed by a thoughtlessly-placed candle.
Meanwhile, in a back office, Edwina and Vince would be gleefully totaling up the bill. Hunched over a spreadsheet like a couple of scrooges, they’d be adding up triple-time emergency and admin fees, plus charges for X-rays, IV fluids, vitamin shots, scans, lab tests, antibiotics, catnip, chew toys, flea spray, and painkillers. On seeing the total, some pet owners needed hospitalization themselves.
In Dr. Wolfe’s opinion, a good veterinary surgeon was part psychologist, part animal whisperer. She routinely played peacemaker on behalf of pets caught up in custody battles or family feuds. As for senior citizens, they adored her. Most came to her more for the company than because their pets needed help.
Knowing that their meager monthly pensions would be swallowed by a single vet’s bill, Kat’s mum had learned how to magic these and other visits out of existence simply by “forgetting” to include them in the diary. No appointment, no charge. It’s not that Dr. Wolfe imagined Nash & Craw Premium Pet Care was a charity. Far from it. But she did believe in fairness.
Somehow Edwina and Vince had gotten wind of these “lost” appointments. They’d gone ballistic. For the past three months they’d deducted every penny they felt sure Dr. Wolfe owed them, plus interest, from her wages. Kat and her mum were not quite living on gruel, but beans on toast had become a recurring theme.
The fun had stopped too. For the entirety of Kat’s twelve and a quarter years, it had only ever been the two of them against the world. That was fine with Kat. Given a choice between spending her weekends with the selfie-obsessed girls who attended her bleak London school or hanging out with her mum and the animals at the clinic, she’d have chosen her mum and the pets 101 percent of the time.
But Vince and Edwina had succeeded in snuffing out even that small joy. They’d banned Kat from helping out or watching her mum work on the grounds of Health & Safety. Which meant that every other weekend and three nights a week, when her mum was on call in case of emergencies, Kat was stuck in the house with Naska, the Bulgarian student who lived with them.
Naska was one of the loveliest people Kat had ever met, but the Bulgarian girl studied every moment she wasn’t sleeping and slept every moment she wasn’t studying.
Tonight was an exception. Naska’s sister, who worked in North London, had been rushed to the emergency room with appendicitis. Since Dr. Wolfe had already texted to say she was leaving work shortly, Kat had insisted Naska go to the hospital at once. Her mum would be home any minute and she’d be fine on her own till then.
As Naska headed out the door, Kat’s phone had pinged again. Dr. Wolfe was running late. Kat waved Naska goodbye without mentioning it.
That had been nearly three hours ago.
Now it was 1:30 A.M. Kat wasn’t worried about being alone. The doors were locked, and she knew her mum would be home as soon as she’d finished dealing with whatever emergency had held her up. But it did make Kat yearn, yet again, for a pet of her own—a dog to guard her and keep her company, or a cat she could snuggle up to.
Ironically, considering her mum spent every waking hour with animals, that wasn’t possible. They lived in a rented house with no outside space on a busy road in London.
“If I can ever find a spare hour to hunt for another job, if we can ever afford a place of our own with a garden, and if we ever have the time to devote to it, I’ll get you the cat/dog/pony/hamster of your dreams,” her mum was always saying.
Kat was not a girl much given to scowling, but she scowled now. “If, if, if.” These days, it was her mother’s favorite word.
With Naska gone, she’d lain on the sofa rereading her favorite horse novel. But even that had annoyed her because it had only reminded her of how badly she wanted to be around living, breathing horses and not just ones in books.
Reading also made her feel guilty. She’d promised her mum she’d make a further attempt to tackle the overcrowding on the flimsy, cheap bookcase begrudgingly installed by the landlord, but kept putting it off. To be fair, it was a big job. Whereas others spent every spare penny they had on clothes, travel, and fancy gadgets, the Wolfes were united in preferring novels and cake. In recent months Dr. Wolfe’s reduced salary had put an end to both. She’d told Kat that, for once, that might not be a bad thing.
“We could turn a negative into a positive by taking the opportunity to do something about your out-of-control book situation.”
Kat was shocked. “Give some away, you mean?” To her, books were like diaries. She only had to glance at an adventure novel she’d read years earlier and she’d be parachuted right back to that time, with all of its emotions and dreams.
“Just a few,” said her mum. “Maybe twenty or thirty. Why don’t you start with the picture books? It’s not as if you’re going to read them again.”
“You want me to give away The Tiger Who Came to Tea? What kind of monster are you? That’s the first book you ever read to me.”
Her mum’s face lit up. “You remember! Okay, maybe not that one, but how about recycling some of the mystery novels you’ve read a dozen times? You’ve dropped at least half of them in the bath.”
“Only if you recycle some of your ancient, dusty textbooks.”
Her mum was scandalized. “I can’t part with those. They’re vital, lifesaving works.”
“You’re telling me you need every edition of The Merck Veterinary Manual dating back to 2009? Those things weigh nearly as much as I do. If one fell off a high shelf, it could kill someone.”
The books had mostly stayed, although Kat had taken a sack of picture books to a charity shop, and her mum had moved the heavier textbooks to lower shelves. Lack of space had forced Dr. Wolfe to leave the current edition of The Merck Veterinary Manual on the top shelf, balanced on a spectacularly ugly vase—a gift from a grateful pensioner.
“She can’t have been that grateful,” Kat had remarked when the vase first came home. “It’s like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”
“It’s handmade,” her mum had said reprovingly. “It means more because it comes from Thelma’s heart.”
In mid-thought, Kat suddenly became aware of an absence of sound. The first, baleful gusts of an incoming storm were slapping at the shutters, but the kitchen window catch was silent. It was almost as if …
An icy finger of dread tiptoed down her spine. It was almost as if someone was holding it, and why would they do that unless…?
A soft thud, a clink of china, and a muffled curse confirmed the unimaginable. Someone was in the kitchen.
For one hopeful millisecond, Kat allowed herself to believe it was her mum. Dr. Wolfe must have forgotten her keys. Not wanting to wake anyone and knowing that the window by the sink was easily forced, she’d climbed in.
Any minute now she’d snap on the kitchen light and make herself a cup of tea. When she discovered that Kat was waiting up for her on the sofa, she’d pretend to be cross while being unable to hide how thrilled she was to see a friendly face. They’d sit up eating crumpets with maple syrup and cashew nut cream and Kat would settle in for her favorite part of any day, listening to her mum describe her cases.
But no light came on. No tea was made. Kat lay rigid on the sofa, too terrified to move. Her phone was charging on her bedside table. The stairs that led up to it were in the hallway between the living room and the kitchen. There was no earthly way she could get to them without being seen. Nor were there any nearby cupboards in which she could hide.
The dim glow of the hallway lamp dipped as someone passed it. Kat corkscrewed off the sofa and slipped behind it. Her heart hammered against her rib cage.
Nothing happened for an age. Kat tried not to breathe or cough while desperately wanting to do both. Then a floorboard squeaked.
For as long as she could remember, Kat had been training herself to banish fear. As the daughter of a vet, she spent a great deal of time around animals made angry and/or dangerous by pain or fear. The best way to calm them was to remain calm herself, even if she had to fake it. But it was impossible to be chill with a stranger strolling around her dark living room.
A torch beam flared. Like an all-seeing eye, it began to explore the floorboards and crevices. It was only a matter of time before the intruder saw the cast-aside duvet on the sofa and put two and two together. What then? Kat’s trembling limbs were about as useful as ectoplasm. She felt incapable of fighting off a field mouse.
Mid-panic, she became aware of a lump pressing against her thigh. A tennis ball! The previous weekend she’d helped her mum pet-sit a Jack Russell whose owner was away in Paris. He was a cute dog but impossibly high energy, and Kat had spent hours retrieving toys from every corner of the house. The tennis ball had gone missing early on.
Now it struck her that if she threw the ball across the hallway, into the kitchen, the intruder might get a fright and think someone was coming. He might fly out of the house, never to be seen again. Or not, but it was worth a try.
The problem was getting the correct trajectory. Too low and he’d guess where the ball came from. Too high or too far left or right and it would hit the doorframe. The burglar would zero in on the source. Kat would be toast.
He was over by the TV now. She could imagine him gawping at their eons-old set and it dawning on him that he’d chosen the wrong house to rob. Now was her chance. She picked up the ball.
Before she could launch it, there was a grunt of alarm. The torch beam swung crazily. The floor close to Kat flooded with light, suggesting that the burglar had spotted the duvet. Next he’d check behind the sofa.
There was no time to lose. No time to aim. Kat threw the ball as hard and high as she could.
It never made it to the kitchen. It didn’t even reach the hallway. It struck the top corner of the door and ricocheted back into the living room.
Kat had always been lamentably bad at tennis. Her first clue that on this occasion she’d scored an ace came when she heard the thwock of the ball against ceramic. The intruder heard it too, because the white beam did another zigzag.
It was not enough to save him. The instant the ball hit Thelma’s vase, the latest hardback edition of The Merck Veterinary Manual, all 3,326 pages of it, soared from its roost like a seabird. The intruder never knew what hit him. It actually dented his forehead.
As he fell, his clawing hands latched onto a shelf. Thanks to the lazy landlord, the bookcase had never been secured. With a sea-lion groan, it parted company with the wall, firing books in every direction. Each caused its own mini catastrophe.
The eight-volume Complete James Herriot box set demolished the lamp and the remains of Kat’s mug of hot chocolate, which in turn sprayed glass and almond milk all over the rug. The illustrated Alice in Wonderland smashed the glass of water holding the pink rose Kat had given her mum for Valentine’s Day, drowning Kat’s school project in the process. Black’s Veterinary Dictionary took a picture off the wall, which then crushed the remains of Thelma’s lopsided vase to powder.
By now Kat was peering over the back of the sofa, unable to believe what she was witnessing. As it emptied, the toppling bookcase picked up speed, spewing woodchips, splinters, and bits of plaster. The intruder’s torch had rolled under the dining room table. It illuminated his skinny, hooded frame as he attempted to sit up before being flattened by the bookcase. The final crash was deafening. A flying shelf knocked the TV to the floor, cracking the screen.
Through a cloud of dust, Kat saw her mum standing open-mouthed in the doorway, keys in hand.
“And I thought that the parties and destruction only started in the teenage years,” Dr. Wolfe said faintly. “Where’s Naska?”
Kat shoved back the sofa and threw her arms around her mother. “Mum, it’s not a party. Naska had to go to hospital with her sister and we’ve been burglarized! Quick, call the police.”
It was only then that her mother switched on the light. The intruder was stretched out on the living room floor, framed, like a bad portrait, by the mangled bookcase. Unconscious, his pale, spotty face looked oddly angelic.
Dr. Wolfe let out a cry of horror and held Kat’s hand tightly while dialing emergency services.
“Kat, that’s it. That’s the absolute final straw. If something had happened to you, I’d never have forgiven myself.”
“But it didn’t.” Kat grinned. Now that her mum was home and the police were rushing to the rescue, she felt a lot better. “Long story short, I was saved by Thelma’s vase, a chewed tennis ball, and The Merck Veterinary Manual. What held you up, anyway?”
“Long story short, I quit my job. Or maybe I was fired. There was a bit of a blowup and it was hard to tell. Either way, I’m free to go anytime or anywhere we choose. I don’t know where we’re going, Kat, but we’re going.”
Text copyright © 2018 Lauren St. John