The moment I unlocked my apartment door, I knew something was wrong; my orange tabby cat, Shazam, was asleep on the sofa, her plump, furry belly rising and falling like a bellows as she dozed, dreaming of prancing through Elysian Fields filled with catnip.
Shazam is never asleep when I get home from work. She meows behind the door when I turn the key, and she purrs as she snakes between my legs when I walk to the kitchen to feed her.
A second surprise awaited me in the kitchen. Shazam's bowl had fresh flakes of cat food around the edge. An empty can of cat food sat in the sink next to a can opener. Who had fed her?
Alarmed, I bolted back into the living room. I looked around frantically. Was a thief in my apartment? Had he taken any valuables? I made a quick scan of the living room. My laptop, artwork, silver, and rare books were untouched. I clenched my fists in fear and listened for strange sounds.
My antique clock ticked on the mantle. A whoosh of air blew out of the floor heating vent and startled me, but otherwise my place was as still as a winter evening.
I tiptoed across the living room and looked down the hall leading to the bedrooms, bathroom, and study. Silent as a graveyard.
I crept down the hall, my heart thumping, and pushed open the bathroom door. A rumpled, damp towel lay on the floor. Whoever had broken into my apartment had taken a shower! Could he still be in the apartment, hiding in a closet or under the bed? I dashed back into the living room and reached for my cell phone to call 911.
A key rustled in my door. He's back! How do I get out of here? As I fumbled to punch 911, the door opened and the intruder entered, his back to me. I held my breath and for an instant considered slamming the door on him.
Then I froze. The person was diminutive. Long hair tucked under a baseball hat. Navy shirt. Black slacks. Stylish pumps.
The intruder's face was hidden behind two grocery sacks. A whiff of Chanel 5 tickled my nostrils.
"911!" a harsh female voice answered on my cell phone. "Is this a life threatening emergency?" I was too terrified to speak.
Shazam jumped down from the sofa, ran toward the intruder, and glided between the black pant legs, purring like a finely tuned Mercedes.
"Shazam, sweetie, let Mama in before Ryan gets home." My heart almost exploded when I recognized a familiar voice.
The female dispatcher barked in my ear: "Is this an emergency?"
"Uh, 'scuse me," I mumbled apologetically. "I punched the wrong button. No, there's no emergency. I'm fine, really. I'm very sorry."
My intruder was Sheila, who had walked out of my life six month ago and left Shazam as a farewell present. She had left without so much as a goodbye, just a scrawled note:
Ryan, I have to go away and start a new life. You're a wonderful man. Have a great life. Love, Sheila
Our six-month affair had ended with that cryptic note sitting next to my apartment key.
"Sh-sh—Sheila?" I said, my voice trembling. "What are you doing here?"
Sheila looked at me between the grocery bags, her face bright as morning sun. "Ryan! You're home! We've been waiting for you."
"H-h-h-how did you get into my apartment?" I stammered.
"You gave me a key, silly man. Don't you remember?"
"B-b-b-but it was on the table when you left—"
"Oh, that!" she explained, grinning like a child caught in the cookie jar. "I made a copy before I moved to Crescent City." "W-w-w-what are you doing here?"
She glided towards me, stealthy as a cat, and adjusted the sacks so she could stand on her toes and kiss my cheek. "You know me, Ryan. I love surprises. I'm in town for a meeting next week and decided to make it a long weekend. My hotel room wasn't ready, so I thought I'd surprise you, have dinner, a few laughs, and talk about the old days."
She was as sexy as I remembered. Fashionably dressed, glowing skin, and a smile that radiated warmth and light. We'd met a year ago when I had been coming out of a depression after my wife had died. Sheila had rescued me, taught me how to laugh and love again. Then had she smashed my heart into a million shards when she'd walked out without a warning.
"I—I—I wish you'd called," I stammered, my hands sweating. I couldn't hide my excitement that Sheila was back. Did she want to start over? Begin where we'd left off?
I couldn't stop stuttering. "I—I m-m-might have been out of t-t-t-town. Or . . . or . . . or busy."
She lifted her cap, her hair falling to her shoulders, and winked in that seductive way that made me shiver. "I'm hoping I'm a lucky girl. Do you have a date?" Sheila was always cocky, certain that she could get her way.
Me have a date? Maybe four since Sheila had left. "N-n-n-no . . . I d-d-don't."
"Good! Then it's settled. Come into the kitchen. Be a dear and open some wine. Let's catch up. I'm dying to talk to you."
So why didn't you call? You could have been dead, as far as I knew. Not a whisper for six months after you ended our affair, which you had claimed was the happiest time in your life.
Sheila hurried into the kitchen, emptied the grocery sacks, opened the fridge to put in wrapped packages, and reached into the cabinet for pots and pans. I was so stunned that I just stared as if she'd emerged from a genie's bottle.
Shazam followed her into the kitchen and lay down in front of the sink, where Sheila began slicing mushrooms, leeks, and tomatoes to make her marinara sauce. She didn't stop talking while I poured wine and listened to her, amazed at how she could sweep into my life without a word of explanation. She had reappeared as suddenly and unexpectedly as she had disappeared.
"It's been a fun, crazy time since I moved to Crescent City," she said, clinking our wineglasses. "I have a fabulous apartment that looks over the marina. When I stand on my toes, I can see the bay. I love the city. It's so exciting. I rollerblade on weekends, exercise every day, and play in a softball league. My friends are wonderful. We do all sorts of exciting things. I even went skydiving! Have you ever skydived?"
"Y-y-you know I d-d-don't like heights."
"It's so thrilling to close your eyes and jump out of a plane, with the earth rushing up to you. I joined a skydiving team. We jump out of the plane, hold hands in a circle, and somersault falling a hundred miles an hour. Then we break apart and pull cords to open our chutes. We land in a field, gather our chutes, and celebrate with champagne."
Sheila chopped onions and garlic and flipped them into the sizzling pan where she'd doused olive oil. Delicious aromas filled the kitchen.
I watched the veins on Sheila's neck pulsate as she spilled out her story. Her eyes were alive as her graceful body glided across the kitchen like a ballet dancer on stage. I used to stare at her, fascinated by how sexy she was, even when she was merely walking across the room to turn on a light or pick up a book.
I sipped wine, nibbled on cheese and crackers, and calmed down. "But Crescent City is a retirement town, with golf courses, senior centers, and hospitals?" I asked, relieved that my stutter was gone. "Why did you move there?"
"You know me. I've always loved the water. When I turned thirty, I was determined to live by the beach and do the things I'd always wanted to do. I've taken scuba lessons, and I went diving in the Caribbean last winter. I'm getting my certification so I can teach diving."
All through dinner, she told me about the things she had been doing, never once explaining why she had walked out on me, left her job, and moved five hundred miles away. Not a call, letter, or e-mail in six months. It was as if she had fallen off the planet, leaving me lonelier than I'd ever been.
After dinner, she called the hotel while I put the dishes in the sink. "My room won't be ready until nine? I can't believe it."
As she came back into the kitchen, she said, "Ryan, I have a little problem."
"If you want, you can stay here in the guest bedroom."
"Really? You're such a dear. I'd love to," she said, putting her arms around my waist and squeezing. "Can we go out on the deck for a nightcap?"