The Cat With Oddly Colored Eyes
A Different Christmas Story
The snowflakes turned into raindrops immediately. It was freezing, but at the height of 22 floors, they didn’t stand a chance against the wind, throwing them against the windows of the Public Library with the brute force of a jackhammer.
Only one of the 120 seats in the legal section was filled. Behind the blue light of a Macbook screen, a tall, blonde woman in her early thirties bit her nails. Marissa glanced at her watch. Quarter past ten, Christmas Eve. Just as she was about to close the laptop, a familiar sound stopped her mid-movement.
“Not now. Please. Do I check it? I can’t not check it. Oh god. Please. Not. Now.”
She opened the email.
Another one-liner from her boss.
“Deadline moved up, tomorrow, 2 PM.”
“I know you don’t celebrate Christmas in India, Sanil, but come on,” Marissa said to herself.
She didn’t notice it, but she slightly shook her head as she packed her bag and made her way towards the elevator. Marissa had never thought of herself as a workaholic. Her undergrad, Master’s, PhD, yes, those had all been challenges, and she had chosen them too, just like this job. But somehow, something was different…
“Forget it M, it’s just a test. Like always. Another test.”
On the train home, the first follow-up popped up on her phone.
“Can I count on you?”
With a sigh, she slipped the phone into her handbag without responding. A few minutes later, she dropped her heels in the hallway of her little apartment for some relief. Her mind told her to make coffee, but she listened to her gut and made peppermint tea instead.
Sitting at the kitchen table in the dimly lit room, she saw her tired reflection in the mirror.
“When’s the last time I felt so…exhausted? Right. Two days ago. Clearly, that didn’t work out so well. Isn’t that right, Tails?”
Marissa’s cat purred around the room, whether to agree or not, only he knew. He was a special breed, a Van cat, with a rare trait: Tails was odd-eyed. One eye was green, the other blue.
When friends asked her, Marissa always said he was a gift from her ex, but that wasn’t true. She’d instantly fallen in love with him at the animal shelter, precisely because of those eyes. Of course, she would never admit that she got him for the same reason all humans get pets: to feel a little less lonely. A little more…accepted.
“Sorry Tails, can’t have my parents think I’m a cat lady. Not yet, anyways!”
Another buzz of the phone interrupted what almost might have become a smile.
“What? Isn’t that…at this hour? That guy NEVER texts me.”
The message was from Fred, a man Marissa knew even less than the fire hydrant outside her doorstep. And it was weird too.
“Can you help me? I think I might get fired. My address is 10 Coulton St. I know it’s late, but if you can make it, please stop by.”
“What the hell does Fred from Accounting want at 11:30 PM on Christmas Eve?”
Marissa had talked to Fred only on two occasions, both of which were complaints the man had brought forth in how she’d filed certain expenses. Other than that, their interactions had been limited to brief greetings in hallways and the friendly, awkward smile you give someone 20 feet away at the Christmas Party.
Marissa was already freshening up and getting ready in the bathroom, when suddenly, she paused. Her reflection in the mirror looked a lot better now, but with the expression on her face, it might as well have been talking.
“Seriously? Fred from Accounting? Who else are you going to give an all access pass for overriding your schedule?”
Her heart sank.
“Who am I kidding? I’m already working myself to death. Is that even…? Will this…ever change anything?”
She sat down on the closed toilet and pulled out her phone again. Somehow, even Fred’s soulless text looked desperate. Grinding her teeth, she grabbed her keys and rushed out the door before she had time to change her mind.
Luckily, Fred didn’t seem to live far away. From the little Marissa had seen of him at work, she assumed he was born as an accountant, including the suit. Total neat freak. Punctual, no sense of humor, and, well, better with numbers than with people.
“But who would turn down a coworker in need, right? Well, on Christmas Eve? Any sane person ever, Marissa! Shut up, brain.”
She rang the bell almost a little too intensely, but Marissa wasn’t prepared for what happened next. A man opened the door, but besides the glasses and the red hair, that man looked nothing like Fred from Accounting.
He was wearing what seemed to be a rainbow-colored bathrobe over blue pajamas, one red slipper and one pink one. Holding a large coffee mug that read “best dada” in squiggly letters, he quietly said:
“H-hey, Marissa, thank…thank you so much for coming. I’m really sorry to disturb you at this late hour, but it’s kind of…well…I’m really scared and I didn’t know who else to call. If I don’t finish this report by tomorrow morning, I might get…”
“…fired. A-anyway, where are my manners? Why don’t you come in?”
Too bewildered to even respond with a proper “sure,” Marissa stepped into the warm hallway of the small one-story house. Slowly catching his voice, Fred continued to explain:
“I have never done something like this, and I hoped I’d never have to, but, alas, here we are. My laptop’s in the kitchen.”
He slowly shuffled through the corridor, but Marissa could hear voices from afar. Looking around the well-decorated, but almost slightly cluttered house, she wondered. “How does a guy like that wear only blue suits?”
As they entered the kitchen, Marissa found part of the answer. The 3-year-old twin girls seemed to either collaborate with or fight over a batch of green Play-Doh, while a young boy, maybe 10, sat watching, assembling a Lego Spaceshuttle set.
“Those are my kids. There’s Anne, Hannah and that’s Tim. Kids, Marissa is a friend from work! She’ll help Daddy figure out some mess he made.”
While Anne and Hannah were too wrapped up in their argument to notice, Tim uttered a quiet “hi,” before returning to his toys.
“Oh, I didn’t know you were a…”
“Single dad? Yeah, well, no one does. I mean, who wants to hire an accountant that can’t even find matching slippers, right?”
Marissa broke a smile.
“Okay, where is that laptop of yours?”
“Of course!” Fred nodded hastily as he brought up Excel. It turned out he’d broken one of his more complex Macros and the results the form spat out were all gibberish. However, since Marissa was a pro, the mistakes only took a few minutes to fix.
“Wait, that’s it? Are you serious?”
“Yup, that’s it! Just gotta know where to turn the knobs!”
“Wow. I mean…WOW! It’s not like I’m a total noob when it comes to Macros, but…again, wow! Thank you!!”
On the outside, Marissa kindly nodded, but inside, she thought: “Of course. How could you know I’m good at this? No one ever does.”
“Marissa, I really don’t know what to say, you’ve seriously saved my…” He silently mouthed the word “ass” to not swear in front of his kids, but his relief was plain to see. “Okay, our turn, what can we do for you? There must be something! Can you…would you like a hot chocolate? I know it’s not much, but…”
“That would be lovely, thank you Fred!”
“Kids, it’s go time. Who wants to make hot chocolate for Marissa?” The kids cheered. Of course the young girls didn’t understand anything but ‘hot chocolate,’ but that was enough. Tim rushed towards the cupboard and a few minutes later, they were all sipping on a hot cup of Swiss Miss.
“You know why I called you, Marissa?”
“I knew you wouldn’t say no. I knew you’d come and help.”
Marissa tried to grin, but clearly that went wrong, because with a slightly shocked expression, Fred quickly changed the subject.
“There’s something I noticed, by the way. I crunch numbers all day, you know, and…well, I’m sure you know this, but…no one contributes more to the bottom line than you do.”
Marissa looked puzzled. “What does that mean?”
“It means you’re the most valuable person in the company.”
“Financially, you mean?”
“Yeah, well, not just…I mean…”
Fred looked down. Now he was embarrassed. “Forget what I just said. I’m sorry.”
Marissa emptied her cup. “Look Fred…thanks for the hot chocolate, but I really should be going now. It’s late.”
Fred got up and picked up his daughters. “Uhm, sure, let me walk you out.”
As Marissa gathered her things, Fred’s face suddenly turned serious. “I know you don’t like me much, because all you ever get to see is accountant Fred from work, but…you know…I’m…a lot more than that.”
Marissa looked up. Now he was smiling, standing there in his bathrobe. With his two little daughters in his arms, he seemed oddly content in the middle of his utter Christmas chaos.
Glancing around one last time, Marissa said: “I do now,” smiling back. As Fred held the door open with his foot, Marissa stepped out into the cold. “Thanks again for hosting me so kindly,” she said.
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous. I’m the one who has to say thank you. I owe you. Big time!”
Just as Marissa hit the last step as she went down the stairs, she heard Fred’s voice call out again.
She turned around.
“I wasn’t just talking about me you know.”
He paused for a second.
“You’re more than ‘that’ too. Whatever ‘that’ is. And whoever you’re being it for.”
It took a moment until Marissa noticed her mouth stood open. When she did, she quickly closed it, looked directly at Fred, nodded one last tim, turned around and walked away.
On the last train home, Marissa remembered her phone. She hadn’t looked at it for hours. No wonder, with all this craziness going on! Four missed calls.
Immediately, she started biting her nails. “How should I respond?” The question occupied her mind the entire rest of the way. When she finally closed the front door behind her, it was past 1:30 AM.
“Phew.” Marissa dropped on her couch. Home. Finally, home. Still juggling potential excuses in her mind, she watched Tails sneak around the kitchen counter. Tired, she smiled at the odd-eyed cat when her glance fell on the framed little picture on the wall. The John Lennon quote read:
“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”
In a split second, Marissa sat up. “That’s it! That’s it Tails! The end!” It was in that moment, that seemingly boring, meaningless moment, in the middle of the night on Christmas in a dark, small apartment, that Marissa understood what Fred had meant with his mysterious farewell.
For lack of a conversation partner, she explained to Tails as much to herself:
“When I was in college and then getting my PhD, there was always an end in sight. You know? I always had a goal. A finish line. And with each finish line I thought ‘maybe, maybe if I knock this one out of the park, the world will finally recognize me.’ Except now, there IS no finish line! I’m done. I’ve blown past all of them and here I am, still not feeling acknowledged.”
She turned the thought in her head. “But where does that leave me? Does that mean…?”
Tails purred. This time, Marissa was sure he agreed. “Huh. Well how about that.” With a genuine smile on her face, she let herself fall back on the couch. Looking at the ceiling, she now almost whispered “I guess…in order to be accepted…you first have to accept yourself.”
Without even looking at her remaining notifications, she turned off her phone. As she feel asleep, it dropped out of her hand and slid beneath the couch.
She would never pick it up again, but that didn’t matter, because for the first time in weeks, Marissa drifted into a deep, peaceful sleep.
Note: I've been sick in bed for a week, so this has recently been my only exercise in learning the basics of creative storytelling. Below is the framework outlined I used to write it. I picked up all of these concepts from Steven Pressfield's Nobody Wants To Read Your Sh*t.-----------------Theme: Acceptance
Villain: Her belief that she’s not enough exactly the way she is.
Friend: Fred from Accounting, single dad, two kids.
Hook: Marissa has to work on Christmas Eve.
Inciting Incident: Pressure from her boss.
Build: Another incident piles on.
Escalation: Marissa doesn’t know how to handle everything.
All is Lost: She can’t see how she can get out of the situation, she’s already killing herself working but no matter what she does, she’s never accepted.
Breakthrough: Marissa realizes that in order to be accepted, she first has to accept herself.
Payoff: Marissa throws her phone out the window.
Climax: Fred helps her overcome her limiting belief by showing her his perspective.