"That's it, you're doing great!" Angie said.
"Thanks, I guess..." Mitch replied resting his leg after the exercises.
"Mitch, you should be pleased with the progress you are making! I see you making a full recovery."
"A full recovery? I don't think so," Mitch said as he brushed a finger over his scarred face.
"Mitch...they are doing remarkable things with cosmetic surgery these days, I mean they've actually done a face transplant! We'll get you fixed up!"
Mitch scowled, "Yeah and who's going to pay for it? My insurance barely covers you! Besides, I don't want a face transplant; I want my own face...from before..."
"Look, you know I don't like these pity parties you throw, you are damn lucky to be alive and not crippled for life! You're healing, your bones will knit, there isn't going to be any permanent damage aside from the scars. There are so many people worse off than you! You should be grateful and not feeling sorry for yourself!"
"You're right Angie, you're right," Mitch acquiesced. "I'm glad I've got you to set me straight."
"Well, don't make a habit out of needing to get set straight and we'll get along fine." Angie said as she smiled. She looked around the bedroom and placed her hand on one of the toy fire trucks that were placed all over the room and moved it back and forth. "Jeeze, I've got to bring Billy over here someday. He loves trucks, especially fire trucks."
"How's he doing by the way?" Mitch asked as he sat up in bed and reached for his cane.
"Great! He's been in remission for six months now! I really think he's going to beat this thing!" Angie beamed.
"That's wonderful! Listen, why don't you give him that truck as a congratulation gift from me?" Mitch said.
"Aw, Mitch, I couldn't," Angie protested.
"Why not? I've got enough of those things and it would really make me feel good. You've done so much for me since I got hurt; things I know are above and beyond your usual duties as a physical therapist. Please take the truck?"
Angie kissed Mitch on his forehead. "You're a good guy Mitchell Taylor. I know Billy will love this. Thank you."
"You're welcome," Mitch smiled.
"Well, I've got to get going. I'll see you same time on Friday?"
"I'll be here," Mitch said.
"Keep up with your exercises; you're making such great progress!"
"Okay, bye then." Angie gathered her purse and other belongings, including the toy truck, and left Mitch in his bedroom and showed herself out.
Mitch stood up on shaky legs and hobbled to the kitchen to get a beer out of the fridge.
A pity party she called it. Mitch knew she was right but he couldn't help feeling sorry for himself. Before the injury he had been a very handsome man. He was engaged to a beautiful woman and had plenty of friends. He couldn't ask for a better career than being a fire fighter. People looked up to him, saw him as a dashing hero, and he had the thrill of not only saving lives but facing possible death on a regular basis. It was a rush like no other.
It was always in the back of his mind that the burning demon might get him someday, the same way it got his father. When he fell through the floor in that burning building he thought that was it for him, he could still feel the flames searing his face, but it turned out it wasn't his time. He was pulled out of that building and ended up with a broken leg, a broken arm, and third degree burns on his face, chest, and arms. Even though he knew the consequences of his work, had been around people who had similar burns, he never thought it would happen to him. He was prepared to face death, but not disfigurement.
During his recovery all his buddies from the fire station visited him, his fiancé came on a regular basis, and his mom even flew out from California for a few days. But then the bandages came off and things changed. His friends didn't come around that much, but he really couldn't blame them, could he? Who wanted to be reminded that this could happen to them? What really hurt was his mother being too busy with her new husband and life on the west coast, even too busy to talk to him on the phone most of the time. But the worst of it was Jessica...Oh Jess. She came out and bluntly told him she couldn't "handle it" and gave him back his ring.
Mitch looked at his reflection in the silver toaster. They had tried giving him skin grafts, but the damage had been too extensive. His face had red and purple splotches all over, in some places the skin was extremely smooth, in others it was rough and pockmarked, and in still others it sagged. Almost all the hair had been singed off the right side of his skull and what was growing back was now coming in gray, almost white. His looks reminded him of that Batman villain, Two Face, but Mitch didn't even have one side left unscarred. He was grotesque.
He felt abandoned. By his friends, his family, his lover. When he went outside his home he felt the stares, he noticed the quick glimpses then quick turns of the head, he heard the silence as people hushed themselves when he walked by. It bothered him when people stared, people who used to look at him with admiration now gawked at him in disgust, but he could brush that off, usually. What bothered him the most though was the damn loneliness! All he really had now was Angie and while she was a true friend, she was still coming there because it was her job. He was important to her, but her husband and son were the most important people in her life.
"Damn it to hell!" Mitch shouted as he slammed his fist on the kitchen counter. Was it so wrong to want to be of prime importance in just one person's life?
Mitch was standing in front of a window at that moment and he noticed a strange flickering coming from his neighbor's garage, a flickering all too familiar. "Bloody hell! What's that asshole up to now?" Mitch muttered.
Jake Tolby was an utter imbecile, and a cruel one at that. Mitch had the great misfortune of living next to the jackass the last couple years and it was not infrequently he heard sounds of domestic squabbles coming from his home. Not too long ago he had called the cops on Jake because of the loud noises that woke him up one night. It was good he had, Jake had gotten into a fight with his current girlfriend, Sharon, and when the police arrived, she had two black eyes and a bloody lip.
Mitch was only wearing gym shorts so he threw on his robe, stepped into his slippers, and grabbed the cordless phone. With the aid of his cane, he walked out the sliding door in his kitchen and proceeded to make his way over to Jake's the best he could in his condition.
He arrived at the front of Jake's garage and banged on the door. "Tolby!" Mitch shouted. "Tolby you in there?" There was no answer but he could smell smoke.
"Won't be happy until he burns down the whole neighborhood," Mitch said to himself. He grasped the handle to the garage door and pulled; the door wasn't locked and began to move up. The door opened to reveal Jake Tolby in a yellow stained wife beater, ripped gray slacks with paint splotches, black boots, mussed up hair and a wild look in his eyes. He was standing over a metal basin pouring whisky over a large fire. Mitch knew the smell of burning flesh too well not to instantly recognize it.
"What the fuck are you doing?!!" Mitch yelled as he made his way over to Tolby as quickly as he could.
"Fuckin' bitch getting what she deserves," Tolby said with slurred words.
"Oh my God! Oh fucking God no!" Mitch said. He shoved Jake aside and he stumbled and promptly fell on his ass. "Where's your extinguisher?" Mitch shouted. Jake just looked up and grinned stupidly. Mitch looked around and saw a red canister lying on its side behind a rusty motorcycle. He shambled over to the extinguisher as fast as he could praying there was still some charge left in it. He went back to the basin and shot white foam over the flames quickly reducing them until they were gone completely.
What were left in the basin were four white covered lumps, a largish one and three smaller. Mitch wiped away the foam from the largest form. He had seen enough burnt pets to identify this one as a cat even though it was charred so black you could never tell what its original color had been.
Mitch looked at Jake in revulsion and confusion. "She loved that fuckin' cat," Jake said. "This will teach that bitch for leaving me! No more fuckin' cat and no more fuckin' kittens!"
Kittens. The three smaller forms. "You sick fuck!" Mitch said. Jake belched.
Mitch pulled the phone out of his robe's pocket and dialed 911. Jake seemed oblivious to what was going on having fallen into a drunken stupor. Mitch pulled out a metal stool and sat on it while he waited for the police. His leg was hurting bad and he was exhausted.
There was a brown sack next to the metal tub and Mitch stared at the bag mainly because it was a damn sight better than having to stare at Jake. There was a lump in the bag and after a couple minutes Mitch realized the lump was moving very slightly.
Mitch limped over to the bag and picked it up. He reached inside and felt something warm and soft. He took hold of the form and pulled it out and found he held a little kitten. It was almost completely black with white tufts behind its ears and little white paws. The poor thing was shaking violently. Mitch went back over to the stool to sit down. He placed the kitten in his lap and it quickly dug its tiny claws into his leg.
Mitch stroked the small animal and made soothing sounds until it released a bit of its tension.
Jake was still on the floor pretty much out of it until finally he realized what Mitch was cradling. "Hey! That's not yours! Gimme that thing!" Jake said.
"Yeah right," Mitch replied. "So you can kill this one too? Go to hell!"
"Fuck you! I'll kick your sorry deformed fuckin' ass!" Jake said as he tried to get up.
Just then Mitch heard sirens and soon enough a police car pulled up into the driveway. Two officers got out of the vehicle, one male and one female. "Mitchie? That you?" One of the officers said.
"Hey Frank! Didn't know you were back on the beat." Mitch said.
"Had to, they needed someone to break in the newbie," Frank said indicating his partner. "This is Elise." Mitch shook her hand, she smiled at him but she was doing everything she could to avoid looking at his face.
"So what's the situation?" Frank asked. Mitch quickly filled them in on what had happened.
"What a creep!" Frank said after Mitch finished the story and Elise looked ill. Jake was in cuffs by then after having been read his rights and placed in the back of the police cruiser. "We'll book him and hopefully with your testimony he'll do some time. Animal cruelty isn't taken as lightly as it used to be. A clean up crew should be here any minute to go over this place and collect any evidence."
"What about the cat?" Mitch said holding up the kitten in his lap.
"His ex-girlfriend will probably want it back," Frank said. "I don't think we need to call animal control for this little thing, I can take it with me and keep it in custody until we can get a hold of the girlfriend." The kitten had calmed down considerably in Mitch's arms but as soon as Frank reached out to take it, it began to mew plaintively and shake again. The kitten was clearly terrified and didn't want to go with Frank. Mitch felt sorry for it.
"Uh Frank, why don't I just keep it for now? When you get a hold of Sharon you can tell her how to get in touch with me." Mitch said.
"I can do that," Frank said. "You sure you want to take care of it?"
"Why not? It's only gonna be for a little while."
* * *
Three years later...
Mia sat in front of Mitch with her head cocked to one side, golden eyes staring inquisitively at him as her paw came up and touched his leg. "Meow?" Mitch put his hand down and stroked behind her ears which immediately started the cat purring. After about a minute though Mia began pawing at Mitch again and let out another interrogative "Meow?"
Mitch got up and went to the refrigerator took out a carton of cream, poured some into a bowl, and set it on the island in the kitchen where Mia had all ready perched herself, her tail swishing in anticipation of her treat.
As Mia began to lap cream Mitch returned to the living room and to a bemused Angie. "I swear, sometimes I don't know who's the pet and who's the owner." Angie said.
"We try to avoid labels here; they just lead to more confusion." Mitch said with a smile. "Can I get you another beer while I'm up?"
"No, I can't stay long and I better not have another since I'm driving."
Mitch sat back in his chair. "Well, I'm really glad you came to visit, I was planning on going to see Billy tomorrow."
"I just needed a break, just for a short while," Angie said somberly. Her face was drawn and there were dark circles under eyes that seemed to hold an indecent amount of sadness. "He's just getting worse. Every day now he seems a little more removed, a little more gone. When I go back to the hospital I'll probably not leave again until...It's not going to be long now, I don't think...I...I just wanted a little reprieve before...before..." Angie held her head in her hands and began to sob.
Mitch rushed over to her and held her. "My baby..." Angie cried. "I'm gonna lose my baby! He's so good Mitch! So sweet! Why'd this have to happen Mitch? Why?"
"I don't know honey, I wish I did," Mitch said softly. He just held Angie and let her cry on his shoulder for as long as she needed to. Finally she pulled away from him and wiped her eyes with a tissue from her purse.
"I'm sorry to put my grief on you Mitch," Angie said.
"There's nothing to be sorry about, I understand how hard a time this must be for you and Jonathan. Anything I can do to help, I will."
"Thank you, you're a good friend," Angie said. "But I don't want to spend the whole time I'm here talking about my sorrows, catch me up on what's been going on with you. You have anyone new in your life, anyone special?"
"Nah, it's just me and Mia as always. I go fishing about once a week, Mia comes with me, I exercise every day, go to work at night, come home, that's about it."
"Mitch, I really wish you would try to get out and be around people more, it's not healthy the way you're living!"
"Angie, please don't worry about me, you've got enough on your plate."
"I can't help it; I know you are unhappy. What about going back to work at the firehouse? I know you miss it."
"I like what I'm doing now just fine. I make enough to get by working nights cleaning parking lots and I have my days to myself."
"Days where you hide out here or are tucked away in an isolated spot on the river. You need to socialize more, find a good woman to be in your life." Angie said.
"Mia is the only girl for me." Mitch said with a grin. As if summoned from thin air, Mia was there at the sound of her name rubbing her body against Mitch's leg purring affectionately.
"Sometimes I think you're right," Angie said as she looked down at the cat. "It's been real good for you to have Mia in your life, I'm glad you two found each other, but Mitch, you still need more. Will you at least think about trying the relationship thing again?"
"All right, I'll try." Mitch said.
"That's all I ask," Angie replied. "I need to get back to the hospital, thanks for the beer and sympathy."
"Any time and I mean that." Mitch said.
"I know," Angie said with a wan smile.
After Mitch showed Angie out he returned to his chair with Mia hopping into his lap immediately after he sat down.
Mitch stroked her and thought about the conversation he had with Angie. He hadn't wanted to say anything in fear of jinxing it but there was a girl he was interested in. Her name was Lisa and she worked the check out register at WalMart. She was a short blonde with a cute face and while they hadn't talked much she didn't seem put off by his scars.
"What do you think girl? Is it time we shook up the old routine?" Mia stopped purring and turned her head to give Mitch a look that he could only describe as dubious. "What, you're not gonna be jealous of another woman are you?" Mitch asked as he laughed and scratched behind Mia's ears and stroked her soft fur from neck to rear. Mia let out a satisfied mew.
Angie had definitely been right about it being a good thing he and Mia had found each other. Sometimes he didn't feel lonely at all when he had the warm feline body snug in his lap.
Mitch remembered the day he got her; he thought it would be only for a short time until Sharon came to retrieve her. He took her home and fixed her a bowl of milk and a little tuna which she devoured mightily. He fixed her a nice bed with a box and a blanket and set it down next to his own bed. By the time he was settled in bed he turned to find the little kitten curled up on his pillow. Figuring it was just for one night he let her stay there.
The next day Frank called to inform him that Sharon had left town. He told Mitch the whole story. Sharon and Jake had a massive fight and she moved out to stay with her friend, taking her cat Chelsea and Chelsea's new litter of four kittens with her. When Sharon and her friend had been out, Jake had come by obscenely drunk, found the cat and kittens, and decided he wanted revenge. He stuffed the five animals in a sack and brought them back to his house to burn. Mitch intervened but not soon enough to save the cats except for the one kitten.
Sharon had been extremely upset and frightened when she learned of the events that had transpired. She was afraid of what Jake would do if he got out on bail. She decided to fly home to her parents. She would have taken Chelsea's last kitten with her but her mother was allergic to cats. After Frank assured her that she could trust Mitch to take care of the kitten, she left town straight away.
"So what am I supposed to do with the cat?" Mitch had asked.
"I don't know. Find it a home. Keep it. You were willing to take it yesterday; I thought you wouldn't mind taking it permanently. A pet could be just the thing you need." Frank said.
"Well thanks for making the decision for me," Mitch said.
"If you want me to take it from you I will. I'll give it to my kids, we all ready got two cats so what's one more?"
Mitch looked at the kitten lying down on the kitchen table, her head resting on her paws, dozing peacefully. "Let me think about it for a while, I'll call you back and tell you what I want to do."
After finishing the call with Frank, Mitch studied the kitten for a while and finally asked "So what should I do?" The kitten looked at him inquisitively. "If you're gonna stay I have to call you something. What would be a good name for you?"
The kitten let out a mew that came out as "meeeaaaah, meeeaaaah."
"Mia huh?" Mitch asked. "I like that name, how about you?"
"meeeaaaah." Mia said. Once he named her he knew he would keep her.
As time passed, Mitch and Mia grew as close as a pet and owner could be. They seemed to be able to anticipate each other's wishes and sense each other's moods. Mia never did use that box as her bed, she much preferred Mitch's pillow. Mitch eventually got used to waking up by having a sandpaper tongue lick his nose.
Mia was a playful kitten and grew into a very playful cat. She loved playing with strings, shoe laces, and socks. She had a rubber mouse that she would constantly stalk, but her favorite prey was Mitch. She would know the exact times when Mitch was least wary and pick those to pounce on him. Sometimes she'd leap onto him from atop the refrigerator, sometimes she'd be up on a high shelf, a few times she even attacked him in the shower shocking the hell out of him. "I thought cats hated water!" Mitch would say. If Mia did, apparently it was worth it to brave the water to get the prey.