“Marty? Is that you?”
“Come inside,” he commanded, as he turned and held the door open for her.
Carol entered the shop and was amazed to see it was empty, with rows of cages along each wall.
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“It is you, isn’t it, Marty?”
“They?” she questioned, “Who are “they”, and what happened to you? You disappeared without warning me.”
“I know I should have; I would have let you know, but I only was offered this position recently and thought, no, hoped, I would run into you. I couldn’t visit you or go looking for you since I cannot go further than the awning over the door.”
“Oh, you’re not making sense, Marty, but then you never were much good at making sense. All you ever wanted was to…”
“…to make money and look after you and the baby. I could never have made sense or anything worthwhile, not that I did; my greed was my undoing.”
“What on Earth are you talking about, Marty, and what about this pet store with all its empty cages? You must be doing quite well if you’ve sold all your stock of cats and dogs. Do you have birds too?”
“No, birds aren’t meant to be in cages, Carol. Cats and dogs get set free in their new homes but birds are usually kept in cages. But these cages are not empty due to the sale of what was in them. Each of those cages represents one Christmas.”
“You are mad,” said Carol.
“Yes, I was, but I see things differently now. Look upon those cages over there,” Marty said, as he pointed to one wall of cages with locks on them. “Each of them is a Christmas passed; ones I missed having with you and Bobby.”
Carol was becoming a little afraid. She began to think that Marty might have escaped from a mental institution, but she couldn’t work out how he could then have a shop.
“What about those cages over there? They have locks on them too, are they also yours?” she asked.
“No, those are the cages of your Christmases; all the ones you missed sharing with others. And before you ask about these unlocked cages along the other wall, they are the cages of your Christmases yet to come.”
Carol was now really becoming frightened by Marty, and his words. Edging her way towards the door she tried to distract Marty with, “And what about the kitten in the window?”
“The kitten is waiting to see if it has a home this Christmas, or not.”
“Marty, can I call someone for you. I think you need help,” said Carol.
“Carol, I am not the one who needs help. I am beyond help. This is the only thing I have ever done to help you, or anyone other than myself. I am trying to show you that your life is going to be an empty cage unless you open up your heart to those who love you. I didn’t, and it has left me terribly alone.”
Carol swayed a little from the intensity of Marty’s message. She could hardly believe any of this was real, let alone aimed at her. Marty could see she did not believe him. With his hands, he gestured towards the door.
“Carol, if you do not want to save yourself then look at how your miserable life will affect others.”
The door to the pet shop flew open and a small figure of a young man staggered in. He fell to the floor, shaking and shuddering, blood stains around his mouth, his eyes vacant, glazed and turning lifeless. His skin was becoming as grey as it was pale.
Carol looked away. Marty grabbed her by the arm. “Look Carol. Do you know who this is?”
“No,” she quavered, “I’ve never seen him before.”
“Look again,” insisted Marty.
“No, I don’t I know him.”
“Carol, please,” pleaded Marty. “Please, for our son’s sake, come closer, and look deliberately upon the face of this boy.”
Hesitatingly, Carol approached the figure lying on the floor boards of the shop. The wind whistled through the spaces between the floor boards, and a freezing wind gusted through the door, dropping icy crystals on the boy’s threadbare clothing. She leaned down and almost fearfully touched his hand, shivering from the reality.
“It’s Robert’s friend, Jim. But Marty, what is he doing here?”
“He is going to die, Carol. He will die because you will drive him away by ignoring our son’s love for Jim.”
“I wouldn’t do that, I have never stopped Robert from being with him.”
“But you never make him welcome either. You have barely accepted our son, and never his friend; you just ignore him in the hope that he will go away, leaving you to your greed. This boy is who Bobby loves,” said Marty as he pointed to the frozen figure on the floor.
“This boy loves our son and if you drive him away he will die. He will fall ill and die from a broken heart. Need I tell you what that will do to Bobby?”
Marty raised his hands again towards the door.
“Stop!” cried Carol. “Don’t show me, just tell me what I have to do.”
“I cannot tell you Carol, you must work out what is right and do it. Look to see me no more,” intoned Marty as the body of the youth grew paler and faded away; Marty himself faded as a white mist filled the room.
Carol heard the kitten mewling and rushed to pick it up.
The sunlight streamed through Carol’s bedroom window, but it was the sound of a kitten meowing that had awoken her. Quickly she rushed to the window and opened it. She saw the next door neighbour’s boy riding a new bicycle that he must have gotten for Christmas.
“You there, boy,” she called out.
“Me ma’am?” he called back.
“Yes, you. What day is it?”
“Yes, today. What is it?”
“Why…it’s Christmas day of course.”
“Thank you,” she said, “and boy? Merry Christmas to you.”
She looked at the clock, it was 9 a.m. She’d have to hurry. Quickly she rang Robert on his mobile phone.
“What did she want? I suppose you have to rush home or to her shop,” said Jim.
“No,” said Bobby, “She wants us to meet her out front as soon as we can. She wants to take us to lunch for Christmas.”
“Us?” asked Jim.
“Yes, both of us, and…”
“…and she called me Bobby.”
Happily Jim did not fall ill and he and Bobby are still together. The kitten adopted them, and has grown into a beautiful cat that sleeps with them both on the foot of their bed in Carol’s house.
Carol eventually found Marty’s grave where she placed a floral tribute. She still doesn’t understand all that happened that night in the Shoppe of Christmas Pets. She makes sure to celebrate the spirit of Christmas every day and will always remember Marty when he spoke to her on that Christmas Eve.
On Christmas Day, Carol embraced Jim’s and Bobby’s love for each other, and when Jim looked into Bobby’s eyes he wished out loud, “May our love be accepted by everyone.”
The cat purred contentedly on top of the bed, not a cage to be seen.