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Cold Comfort

By Paul Clark

Where were you last night, Ben said, looking down at the cat and shivering in the open doorway. He squinted at the sheen of morning sun reflecting off the fresh snow in the yard. Last night it had been cold, the sky cloud-muffled, but he’d thought he sensed spring coming. This morning it felt like mid-February again.

The cat scooted past into the kitchen. Ben started to close the door but caught sight of something through the glare of sun-on-snow, a faint redness. The snow had drifted in a steadily diminishing angle up the steps, the biting wind rolling it to a smooth crust from the street to the steps; the cat's paws had barely broken the surface. His eyes followed the path of pink-tinged paw prints down the stairs, down the walk, and out toward the street. The color darkened until the trail stopped at a spot out by the low bushes near the curb.

Ben looked back at the cat, sitting on the mussed blanket on the couch where Ben had been sleeping, licking his paws. What were you doing last night, Ben asked. He closed the door and walked into the room. He hadn’t cleaned up after Lisa’s visit. A piece of gold wrapping paper was stuck to the side of her chair. The plate, knife, and fork at her place were clean, unused, the wine glass half full. The glass and bottle next to his own untouched plate were both empty.

Ben sat on the couch and slipped on gym shoes, knocking over the bag that Lisa had brought with her, full of CDs and books she had borrowed from him. He decided against walking to the back of the house for a coat to throw over his t-shirt and shorts—he just wanted to see what the cat had got at out by the street. The cat moved to the table and sniffed at Ben’s plate.

Ben walked outside. At the top of the stairs he slipped, but caught himself on the metal railing. The snow squeaked as he walked and his eyes watered in the wind. He thought about going back for the coat, but whatever the cat had gotten into might be salvaged, and the sooner the better.

As he walked closer to the street, the paw prints grew fainter, but their color turned from pink to red. It was dark red by the street and whatever was there wasn't moving. When he finally reached the curb, he let out a short laugh.

Half-buried in the snow was the heart-shaped box of chocolate that Ben had thrust in Lisa's hands as she’d rushed out the door the previous night. The lid was partially open, and the red tissue paper that had covered the chocolate was shredded. It lay around the box and tangled in the low bushes next to the curb. The sodden bits had mixed in with the paw prints.Ben picked up the box and noted that none of the chocolate had been touched—just the paper. He walked back to the house.

When he opened the front door, the cat was still on the dining room table. Ben sat, picked a piece out of the box and held it out for the cat to sniff. Ignoring the chocolate, the cat jumped to the floor.

She didn't want it either, Ben said to the cat. He bit off a frozen corner and rolled it around in his mouth it until it softened. The cat settled on the sofa. Ben popped the rest of the piece in his mouth. It was dark chocolate and slightly bitter. The cat closed his eyes and purred.

 

Paul Clark is a freelance writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.

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