Kari glanced down at the pet carrier sitting on the passenger seat next to her, then up at the sign on the simple but rustic building in front of them. "It doesn't seem so bad," she said. "I'm sure you'll like it here." The shelter was a short drive from her apartment, right on the outskirts of town. The occupant of the carrier had pouted the entire way there, past the stately buildings on Main Street, the lake dotted with canoes and small rowboats, and the tiny park from which the boats were launched.
She glanced down at the frayed denim shorts and simple blue tank top she was wearing, and decided there probably wasn't a dress code for going to the shelter. A good thing, since she tended toward the casual and comfortable, and rarely put on makeup unless she was going out or to work. As usual, her long, dark, curly hair was simply pulled back into a scrunchie, more to get it out of her way than from any sense of fashion.
Round green eyes stared back up at her out of a furry black face that looked remarkably unconvinced. It let out a plaintive meow.
"I'm sure you'll get adopted right away," Kari said, well aware that having a conversation with a small stray cat was probably one of the first signs of insanity. She glanced around to be certain there were no witnesses and then added in a pleading tone, "Look, I already have two cats and a dog. I can't keep you. But you're gorgeous. Someone is going to be thrilled to have you."
The kitten, which looked to be about three months old, meowed again, this time more assertively. Kari had seen it wandering around outside her apartment for the last week and had finally been able to catch it so she could take it to the shelter. She'd asked all around the neighborhood and no one knew who it belonged to.
There was a two-year college in the next town over, and the students there sometimes rented places in picturesque Lakeview, with its beautiful lake and rolling hills and the changeable seasons of the Catskills in upstate New York. It was June, so most of the students had headed home after the semester ended. Maybe one of them had abandoned the kitten once it outgrew its tiny and cute stage. Although really, it was still pretty cute.
Kari sighed and forced herself to get out of the car, go around to the other side, and pick up the carrier. The kitten yawned at her, showing a bright pink tongue, then meowed again, loudly.
"Not a chance," Kari muttered as she walked across the rectangular asphalt parking lot. "I do not need another pet. Not right now. Life is too crazy already." She walked through the door into a neat if sterile anteroom that smelled faintly of bleach. The sound of barking could be heard from out back, and there were pictures of dogs, puppies, cats, kittens, and even a rabbit up on the walls. A stocky middle-aged woman wearing a powder blue Lakeview Shelter tee shirt, a frazzled expression, and a nametag that said Loretta stood behind the front desk.
"Hi," Kari said, "I caught this stray cat in my neighborhood and I-"
"Sorry, but no," the woman said. "We can't take it."
Kari felt her jaw drop. "What? It seems perfectly healthy. A little thin, maybe, but I think it has been on its own for a while. It's not feral, though." She held up the cage so Loretta could see the kitten. "See, it's perfectly friendly."
The kitten glared out through the front bars, as if to prove Kari wrong.
"Doesn't matter if it can sing and dance and fetch the morning paper," Loretta said in a beleaguered tone. "We're completely full. Heck, we passed full about twenty cats ago. It's kitten season, honey. There's no room here, or at any of the shelters within driving distance that I know about." She shook her head, fiddling with one earring shaped like a pawprint.
"We got people coming in with mama cats and half a dozen kittens, or dropping kittens off in boxes by the door when we're not open. We got kittens coming out our ears." She heaved a sigh, the frazzled look sliding into one of sheer exhaustion.
Kari opened her mouth to argue that one more couldn't matter, but the woman beat her to it.
"We're mostly all volunteers here, other than a few part-timers and the director, who already works more hours than God made in a day. I'm sorry, honey, but you're just going to have to find someplace else to take that cat." The woman gave Kari a sympathetic smile. "Can't you keep it yourself, or maybe get one of your friends to take it?"
"I already have two large orange cats and a medium-sized mutt dog in a tiny apartment," Kari said, trying not to sound too desperate. "I'll probably be moving soon, and things are chaotic enough without adding another animal. My friends already have as many cats as they can handle too. Didn't there use to be another shelter around here?"
Loretta rolled her eyes. "You mean that rescue place? It wasn't a shelter, honey. Leastwise, not an official one like this. Sweet young woman thought it would be a good idea to save all the animals there wasn't any room for anywhere else, started up a place she called Serenity Sanctuary. Turned out not to be so serene, from what I heard.
"Poor thing tried for a while, but she ran out of money, energy, and volunteers. That nasty county dog warden, Bill Myers, has been trying to get it shut down for all kinds of code violations, even though she begged for more time for grant money to come in. Some of the animals are staying with the people she had doing fostering, some got sent here and to other shelters." Loretta shook her head. From somewhere in the back, a dog howled plaintively.
"Luckily that was around Christmas, when we tend to adopt out a few more animals than usual, so we had the space. Not during kitten season, thank God. The place has been sitting mostly empty since then, with just the few animals they couldn't find a place for hanging on for now. But I hear they're going to get sent to one of the big shelters in the city. Lord knows what will happen to them then."
"But," Kari started to say. "I can give a donation. A big one."
The other woman shook her head. "I'm sorry, honey, but I can't help you. We just don't have any room."
"Can't you think of anything?" Kari asked. "I can't just put this poor baby back where I found it." The kitten meowed in agreement, and Kari had a sudden flashback to her father grabbing the stray kitten she'd found as a child and tossing it into the neighbors' yard, saying, Someone else will take care of it. I'm sure as heck not going to.
"Not unless you know someone with more money than sense who you could talk into fixing that sanctuary place," Loretta said, giving her a sympathetic look.
The phone rang as Kari turned to go, and she could hear Loretta saying, "No, ma'am, we don't have room for a litter of kittens. Yes, ma'am, eight is a lot for one mama cat to have."
Kari thought about it all the way out to the car, and as she placed the carrier carefully on the front seat and walked around to slide in behind the wheel. She stuck her fingers between the bars and scratched the kitten under its chin.
"You know," she said to the purring cat. "I do know someone with more money than sense. This could be a problem."
The kitten purred some more. Kari had the sneaking suspicion she'd just lost an argument to a tiny ball of fur. And an even worse suspicion that it wasn't going to be the last time that happened.
You did what?Ó her best friend asked. A pair of scissors dangled from her fingers as she ignored the partially clipped Yorkie on the raised table in front of her. SuzanneÕs hair was short and spiky, and at the moment she and the dog looked strangely similar. Although the dogÕs fur wasnÕt lavender, thankfully. Kari reached one hand up to touch her own long dark curls, feeling somewhat drab in comparison. This was not a new sensation, with a friend like Suz. Luckily, they had been friends for so long, they tended to balance each other out.
"I bought that run-down animal sanctuary up on Goose Hollow Road," Kari repeated. "Oh, and it looks like I've been adopted by a cat." She held up the carrier. "Can you tell if it is a boy or a girl?" She glanced around the small room to ensure it was safe to let the kitten out. The orderly row of cages in various sizes lined up against the far wall was empty except for one bored-looking standard poodle sporting a snazzy pink bow in its topknot. Suz's grooming shop was located just off the main street on the quaintly named Farmer's Lane, conveniently located between a pet supply store and a narrow dog park maintained by the town.
Suz opened the carrier door and picked up the kitten. "A girl," she said, peering at its fuzzy backside. "I'd say she's about three months old. Is this the one you said you'd seen hanging around your apartment?"
She gazed down at Kari from her almost six-foot height, half a foot taller than her friend. As usual when Suz was working, she wore a brightly colored smock, blue jeans, and sneakers. Today's sneakers were lime green with lights that flashed when she walked. "And what do you mean, you bought the animal sanctuary? Are you kidding?"
"Nope," Kari said. "I might be crazy-the jury is still out on that. But I'm not kidding. I took the kitten to the town shelter, and the woman there said that they were full. That everyone was full, and the only thing that could help would be if someone with too much money and not enough sense bought the rescue and reopened it. So I went to the real estate office that is handling it, made an offer, and bam. Done deal."
She stuck her chin in the air and crossed her arms. She knew it sounded completely impulsive and off the wall, which was totally out of character for her, but she'd known it was the right thing to do the second the thought had occurred to her.
Suz shook her head. "You bought an animal sanctuary so you wouldn't have to keep this kitten? I think the jury can come back in."
The kitten in question wiggled out of her hands and jumped onto Kari's shoulder. Once there, she settled into place and started to purr. Loudly.
"I'm pretty positive I'm keeping the kitten," Kari said, as if that weren't already obvious. "I bought the animal sanctuary so there would be someplace for all the other stray cats to go. And dogs. It's crazy, I know. But it just felt . . . meant to be."
Suz sank onto a stool and looked thoughtful. "A good kind of crazy, maybe. You know, the more I think about it, the more I like the idea. I mean, you won five million dollars in the lottery when you stopped to buy cat litter at the convenience store. It's kind of fitting." Suz was very big on things like karma and destiny.
She petted the Yorkie absently. "Even though you got your payout a month ago, you're still living in that crappy apartment, working at the same crappy waitress job. Maybe this is just what you needed to jolt you out of your rut."
"I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do," Kari explained, not for the first time. "I didn't want to go off half-cocked." Normally, she thought things through rationally. Made lists. Weighed pros and cons. She'd made enough bad decisions in her life that she leaned toward being overly cautious about making any major choices now. Until today, apparently.
Suz chuckled. "Well, I think that ship has sailed. But at least you'll finally move out of that horrid apartment. Lakeview doesn't have a bad side of town, but I swear, that building you live in is trying to change that. The place is a dump and your landlord reminds me of Norman Bates. Now you can move into the house out at the sanctuary and have as many pets as you want."
Kari perked up. "Oh, right. I forgot there was a house out there. I've driven past it a couple of times, but that was a while ago."
"Please tell me you didn't buy the place without even going out to look at it. That's completely not like you," Suz said. She tugged on her short hair until it stood up even more. "Never mind. Don't tell me." They'd been friends since high school, so Suz knew Kari better than just about anyone. They'd always stuck together through good and bad.
"Okay," Kari said. "I won't tell you." She turned her head to look at the kitten, who was playing with Kari's silver hoop earring. "This is all your fault." The kitten meowed, looking smug.
"What are you going to call her?" Suz asked. "She is clearly going to be the boss of you. What about Queen Nefertiti?"
The kitten meowed again, jumped from Kari's shoulder to the table, and sneered at the dog before settling down for a nap.
"I think she likes it," Kari said. "Queenie it is. When you get done for the day, how about going out to the sanctuary with me to check it out?"
Suz grinned at her and picked up her scissors. "I thought you'd never ask. We own an animal sanctuary. How cool is that?"
They took KariÕs ancient Toyota, with its seats patched with duct tape, and she reminded herself that now that she could afford it, she should really look into getting a newer car. Despite SuzÕs teasing, Kari had meant what sheÕd said about trying to figure out exactly what she wanted to do before she went wild with the lottery win. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. SheÕd wanted to make certain she handled it wisely.
She wasn't sure buying a defunct animal sanctuary on a whim qualified. But she was committed now, and hopefully she wouldn't regret it. At least she'd be doing something good that had a purpose, and that had to beat serving eggs over easy at the local diner. At twenty-nine, that kind of job was getting old. She was tired of just surviving-it was time to figure out who she wanted to be when she grew up and then be that woman.