Shannon took a deep breath and then opened the door. Tiny brass bells that hung on the inside tinkled merrily until she closed the door behind her and ran her hand swiftly through almost completely brown hair. She let her breath out, and then inhaled the smells of the Animal Rescue Thrift Store she was now standing inside. Another girl at the counter looked up from the cash register, and grinned. Halley was a full fifteen years older then Shannon, but they could talk together as if they were the exact same age. “Hi, Shannon!” she called.
“Hi!” Shannon replied. There was a loud and throaty meow from near her sneakers, informing Shannon that Jenny was making her presence known. “I won’t forget you,” Shannon said, kneeling so that she could pet the pure white cat that had been in the shop for as long as she could remember. Jenny purred, rubbing her head up against Shannon’s shoe, rolling on the gray carpet.
“Come to pick up a form?” Halley asked, carefully sorting the money into equal piles.
Shannon’s mouth was suddenly dry, and she stood, ignoring Jenny’s pleas for more petting.
“Yes.” She nodded.
“Hold on,” Halley said. The front counter was always a mess of labels, pieces of paper, things on sale, and things that Halley needed to put price tags on. Halley rummaged around in a drawer for several minutes, and Shannon stood as if frozen in the same spot. “Ah! Got one!” she called.
Shannon walked to the counter, and Halley passed over a piece of paper on the clipboard.
Shannon took them and bit her lip. “Isn’t the kitten room open?” she asked.
“I think I can let you in. There is a new batch of kittens that I just put flea ointment on, so I don’t want kids petting them too much. Go ahead.” Halley turned to help a customer.
* * *
Shannon slipped inside the kitty room and made sure the door was firmly closed behind her, and locked. If there were new kittens that meant that they wanted out of the room above all else.
As she turned around, she realized that she had been right—live kittens bounded toward the door hopefully. One tabby, two Siamese and two sandy-colored. Shannon bent over . . . and they scattered, finding shelter under the metal file cabinets, cages, and cave made from just-washed blankets warm from the dryer. “Better get used to me,” Shannon said, looking around. “I may work here, you know.” No response from the kittens. They didn’t stick so much as a whisker out from their hiding places. Shannon sighed. Well, she wasn’t about to go crawling around after them now, scaring them half to death.
She sat down in one of the rocking chairs and looked at the form. It was hard to understand the first time she read it, but then she read it again, and began to fill it out. The last question was the simplest for her. “Why do you think working in the kitty room would help? Why do you like kittens?”
Shannon paused, and carefully wrote her answer. “Because these kittens don’t have any homes, they don’t have any mothers to go to. I know I couldn’t be a mother, but I’ve always loved kittens—I may never know why. It could be because of trust.”
Surprised that she was done, she looked down at her lap. There was a sandy-colored kitten sitting on it. When Shannon reached down, it hopped off. Shannon shrugged, and opened the kitty room door, then slipped out. Halley was standing there, and Shannon handed her the paper.
“I know the director will let you in, even though you’re only eleven,” Halley said, putting the form on the director’s desk. “She’s seen how those kittens love you.”
“Need any help?” Shannon looked at the messy desk quizzically.
“No, thanks though. Isn’t it time for your dinner?”
Shannon sped out the door, calling, “Thank you!”
* * *
“Was it accepted?” Shannon was excited, jumping up and down at the counter.
Halley smiled. “Of course. I told the director you have experience with cats so you know what to do . . .”
“When do I start?”
“Nobody’s in there now” Halley said. “You won’t be getting paid, you know.”
Shannon nodded. “Yes—I know.”
* * *
The kitty room hadn’t been cleaned in several days, so Shannon had her work cut out for her. The cleaning closet was full and cluttered. Shannon started dusting right away. Dust fell off the tops of the shelves and the file cabinet, cascaded down from the cages. Sneezing, Shannon dusted the rest and went to the dishes full of food. Except that was the problem. They were empty. It took her a good ten minutes to find the wet cat food. She dumped it into a new not-dusty bowl and set it on the tray. Time to wash the dishes. She opened the screen door, and closed it behind her, balancing dish soap in one hand, and a plastic box full of dishes in the other, and was nearly bowled over by a blur of gold fur. “Benny. Down!” Benny, a golden retriever, rolled in the dirt, and Shannon began to wash the dishes on the grass.
She went inside again and dried them, put them on the correct shelf, and looked around. It didn’t look much better. She grimly clamped her mouth shut. She would make this place shine—or else.
* * *
TWO MONTHS LATER
The director, a red-haired woman with glasses, looked into the room. “You did this?”
Shannon nodded, embarrassed.
Instead of scolding, Ms. Lanburn put her head to one side. “Very good. Excuse me—it is time for our meeting. There’s somebody coming in about ten minutes who I think you should meet.”
“Who?” Shannon asked, tugging at one of her braids.
“She wants to volunteer. I’m sorry but I really do have to leave now.”
Shannon cuddled the tabby kitten in her arms for a moment, then put him down. His fur was matted from stepping in the water bowl. She went to find the brush and sat down with him in her lap in the newly-covered rocking chair. She had sewn one of her old blankets from home onto it, and now it had the design of embroidered gold kittens running on a red background. Shannon was attacking the fur of the kitten that sat purring in her lap when there was a knock on the glass.
“Come in!” Shannon called, setting the kitten down.
In stepped a girl her age, wearing a plaid skirt and a green top, hair spilling down her back like honey. She had long lashes and from whatever way she looked Shannon couldn’t deny the envy at being that pretty.
“Hello.” Shannon extended her hand. “Sorry!” It was covered in wet cat fur.
“I’m Mary. You’re Shannon, right?”
The girl was a few inches shorter than Shannon, and seemed about a year younger.
“I’m here to volunteer,” Mary said shortly.
“Good. We need more people here, we really do,” Shannon said warmly. “Want me to show you the ropes? This is the radiator—you aren’t supposed to leave it on . . . “
“No, thank you. They said I could volunteer today,” Mary cut Shannon short.
“But . . . but . . .” Shannon stuttered, “I . . . I was going to volunteer today . . . I mean, I was here first, so, maybe you could help?”
“No, thank you,” was the reply again.
Shannon stood there. She expected Mary to turn on her heel and walk out. But the other girl didn’t move.
“Maybe we need to start over,” Shannon said. “I think we do. Maybe you could help me? That must be why the director sent you here, now”
“No. Thank you.”
Shannon felt as if she was going to cry, a deep sorrowful feeling in her chest. So she was the one that left the room.
* * *
Shannon lived only a block away from the thrift store, and she was on summer break, so she could really go there and volunteer any time she wanted. She wasn’t able to last night.
Groaning, she heaved herself out of her bed and dressed, brushed her hair, then went downstairs to have breakfast. It was six o’clock in the morning. Mary won’t have even gotten up yet, Shannon thought, eating her cereal so quickly she spilt milk on her lap. The thrift store would be open, though. If not, she could find a spare key.
She ran to her mother and father’s bedroom. “Mom, Dad, I’m going to be volunteering, OK?”
Her mother rolled over in bed. “All right, I’ll call the thrift store if you aren’t back by one o’clock.”
Shannon nodded, and left the house.
The air was crisp, making her eyes sting, and her nose run. But there was something else in the air that made her nose even more irritated than it was with the fresh air. Smoke. Not wood smoke either. Shannon knew wood smoke because she lit the fire in their house every morning. It smelled strange. Looking up in the sky, Shannon saw a haze. Running, she followed it, for only a block until she realized where it was coming from when she reached an open parking lot. Flames were shooting out of the back of the thrift store, and smoke was rising into the air in a billowing cloud.
* * *
The door was open, but there wasn’t anybody inside. Shannon pushed it, and out ran a white blur, yowling. Jenny. Smoke filled Shannon’s nose now, and when she stepped inside she could hardly see a thing. She fumbled in her pocket, found a hanky, and crammed it over her mouth.
The kittens. That was all that mattered now.
Stumbling through the smoke, Shannon found the door, but flames were in front of that. There was a broad window behind the director’s desk. Shannon grabbed a raffle item, a heavy painted rock, and threw it at the window. Hard. The window shattered, and Shannon clambered on top of Ms. Lanburn’s desk and threw herself in. She landed on the floor, flames barely a foot away from her. Loud kitten mewls reached her ears, and Shannon stood. The flames were creeping toward her and the cages. Some of the kittens weren’t even inside, but they were huddled in a basket, looking wide-eyed at the flames. Shannon took two quick steps forward, and unlocked the cages, and held the bundle of kittens in her arms. There was no time to think. She went back to the window and placed them on the director’s desk, and jumped out herself. The smoke was searing her lungs, making it seem like every breath was a precious thing, so long as it didn’t hurt.
The two sandy kittens looked up at her, and the two Siamese were rolling in a ball on the desk. In the distance Shannon heard sirens, quiet at first, but then getting closer and closer, and it came to her in a flash. The tabby. She had forgotten the tabby. Shannon jumped through the window again. The tabby was still locked in its cage, blinking dumbly at the flames that were only inches from the window that Shannon had just jumped through. It didn’t meow. It didn’t hiss, or screech or even looked terrified. It just sat there, looking at the flames, as if paralyzed. Shannon opened the cage, and grabbed the tabby, stuffing it under her coat. The flames had advanced five feet, roaring and crackling, snaking toward the girl and the kitten. Now there was no way out the window. There was no escape.
* * *
ONE WEEK LATER
For now, Shannon hardly remembered the flames getting close, so close she had gasped and scrabbled for a door, any hidden door, back pressed against the cages. And it seemed like a silly dream that the fire had been put out just then, by firemen in yellow coats holding a heavy hose.
But it had been real, and Shannon knew it because of several things. The floor in the kitty room had to be replaced, but that wasn’t too much of a problem because it had been carpet anyway, and probably had held too many germs to be healthy. And the kittens, for the most part, were fine, except for the smoke damage to their throats, but the vet assured them that it would get better soon. The whole back of the kitty room had to be redone, and the door had burned down completely. When Shannon was asked the cause of the fire, it was confirmed that the radiator had been left on—and Shannon was believed rightfully when she told the truth and said that she wasn’t the one that had left it on.
“But do you have any idea who left it on?” Ms. Lanburn had asked. Shannon had pressed her lips shut and just shaken her head.
Shannon now watched the kittens from a new rocking chair as they skidded on the new wood floor in the kitten room, and fought, and batted at toys. The tabby now sat in the far corner of the room, observing everything in sight as if not seeing anything at all. He was shy, Shannon realized. Shy because he didn’t know what to do.
She was about to bend down and try to pick him up when the door to the kitty room opened. Two of the kittens jumped forward as Ms. Lanburn struggled to close the door quickly, and Shannon grabbed them by the scruffs of their necks.
Ms. Lanburn sat down on another chair and there was silence for a moment before she started to speak. “I’d like to thank you for what you’ve done,” Ms. Lanburn said, turning her head slightly toward Shannon. “I don’t like to think of what would have happened if you hadn’t saved them. The kittens. And I want to thank you for it . . .”
Shannon cut her off. “No, wait, I didn’t . . .”
But the director was faster. “How would you like a job here? I would pay you money . . . “
Shannon thought for a moment. “No money for now, maybe later. But I’d love to work here.”
Ms. Lanburn looked disappointed. “How about a. . . well, something else that you’d like?”
Shannon looked around the kitty room until her eyes fell on the tabby. “Trust,” she whispered.
“What?” the director asked, startled.
“Tr- . . . the kitten. Trust. Could I have him?”
* * *
Shannon went to the front door and opened it. “Goodbye, Shannon!” Ms. Lanburn called. Halley echoed the same. The little bells tinkled as she opened it a bit wider, and the crisp air flooded in.
Trust the tabby rested on Shannon’s arm. Shannon was fairly sure that he wouldn’t try to run away.
And she paused. Before her, on the door, etched into the wood with what looked like might have been a nail, was one word. Sorry.
Shannon looked at it for a minute more until Trust meowed. It was the first meow that Shannon heard from him. “All right, all right.” Shannon stepped outside, and closed the door behind her.