Life Sentences

When the court mandated that Samantha do community service after stalking John’s wife, Samantha randomly chose the animal shelter.

No one in the court had cared that John had constantly groped her while she stocked the shelves; no one in the grocery store had cared when she’d complained. Even the assistant manager took her aside with a warning that corporate loved John and clerks like her were expendable – especially clerks with a stutter.

Miserably Samantha nodded, watching longingly as a customer with a service dog ambled by.

“Good talk.” The assistant manager dropped an unwelcome arm around her shoulder and squeezed.

That night, over cheap mac and cheese, Samantha came to a decision. Her job was crap but it paid for a crummy apartment away from her boozy parents. If she got even a tiny raise she could get a small cat to come home to. Surely, John would get her a raise at the next evaluation.

She had to survive.

But it was endless. When Samantha desperately stuttered that if John didn’t leave her alone, she’d quit, John made a grab for the nearest breast and murmured he was a man and she aroused uncontrollable passion in him. Didn’t she understand? He needed her. He needed her to keep him on the straight and narrow…

Samantha gave up and tried to figure out how much cat food and vet bills would cost.

After a while she thought John seemed to like her, maybe. He said so. Why would he lie? And he had a great job. He didn’t drink or do drugs…and he swore he loved her. Her parents’ cash had always gone to beer and drugs. John wasn’t terrible looking; she had nowhere else to go...and he said he loved her. She found herself softening toward him.

Boys will be boys…

Things were looking almost good. She might be able to get that cat and maybe a dog too when they moved in together.

Decision made, Samantha slung the heavy gallons of detergent onto the shelves and fantasized about what kind of kitty or dog she could save from the streets. Life would be almost blissful, if she didn’t think too much about John himself.

Then the whole thing shattered when a woman walked into the store demanding to see John.

“C..can customer s…service h…help you?” Samantha ground out.

“Not unless they know where my lousy husband is,” she snapped. And then she strode off, heels clicking on the polished linoleum.

Slowly, Samantha sliced open another packing box. She looked furtively down the aisle after the woman, searching for her, searching for John. They were gone.

The next day, when John was covering her neck with kisses, Samantha managed to ask who the woman was. John raised his face and his eyes flickered. “A friend,” he said, “wanting to know if I’d seen her husband around.” He forced an uncharacteristic smile. “Nothing to do with us.”

Once she’d shaken him off, Samantha sagged against the wall. He had lied. He used her in the most miserable way possible, and he lied.

Later, she sneaked into the office and looked up John’s home address. Then she took three buses to reach his neighborhood. She stood outside his bungalow, autumn drizzle chilling her bones, while the view through the window chilled everything else.

The woman lounged, one leg kicking over the arm of the sofa while she checked her phone. A teenage girl slouched by; the woman held up her phone and they both laughed. An orange tabby stalked along the sofa back and jumped into the woman’s lap.

Sick at heart, Samantha watched all the life she didn’t have from the sidewalk.

Her mind jumbled anger, hurt and desperation. What did this woman do or have that gave her a real life, where Samantha had only this hard scrabble for existence?

Drawn like a kitten to catnip, Samantha began following John’s wife, trying to figure it out – trying to understand. She bought a cheap shirt that looked like the one the woman wore. A couple of times she crept up to their house and peered in the windows, trying to understand. Trying to fend off despair.

And they caught her. Hence the judge, the hearing, the sentence.

Without a job, Samantha threw herself into the mandated volunteer work. During her stalking phase, her dad had been wiped out on his motorcycle and her mom had miraculously sobered up – long enough to share half the settlement with her daughter. The bonding lasted until she wandered back to the bar.

Being away from John, having money in her account, and daily going to the shelter were the best things that had ever happened to Samantha. The knots in her soul began to unravel. As she fed, stroked and loved the animals – careful only to touch them in ways they purred or bunted up to her for – the director watched and told her she had a gift with the animals. A few days later he handed Samantha a brochure about training to be a vet’s assistant.

First she fell in love with Butch – he’d been abused and dumped. Samantha knew how he felt. Until she eased into his kennel, he’d faced the wall shaking, too hurt to cry. She sat with him until he inched over and put his big soft head in her lap. He came home with her the next day. Then came the three musketeers, Athos, Porthos and Aramis, crazy kittens left behind when someone moved…then Peony, a chihuahua-something mix, and Joey, a border-collie-lab with a mind of his own….

Samantha had never been so happy. How had she thought she could ever live with a creep like John? Two weeks later, as she and her small family pigged out on mac and cheese, the dogs suddenly sat up on the alert. A knock, and full crescendo of canine announcement.

Samantha opened the door, flanked by her canine posse. The cats kept disapproving watch from positions of height.

“Thought I’d drop by.” John smirked and his eyes roved over her breasts.

“N…no. Y…you lied. You’re m…married,” she accused.

John shrugged, “What difference does that make to us?” He put a foot out to stroll across the threshold. Samantha slammed the door and walked away.

Giggling, she nestled into the sofa with the dogs sandwiching her with their warm bodies and the cats prancing along the sofa back behind her. A couple of TV shows later, she dropped her dish in the sink, and went to bed.

She jumped awake when her bedroom window squealed open. A skinny leg was hoisting over the sill. Petrified, Samantha could only squeak.

But the sound was drowned out by a scream as Butch fastened his teeth into the man’s thigh, Joey’s into the calf, and Peony nipped the ankle. The cats snarled. Porthos leapt on Butch’s back and swiped claws at the intruder, shredding the trousers.

The screaming and groaning went on even when the leg was withdrawn and Samantha called 911. The police and paramedics arrived long before John could hobble into the darkness.

“It’s not my fault!” John shouted. “The witch made me do it!”

As she began her first class at the community college, Samantha saw in the local paper that John had gone to jail. A short sentence, with time off for good behavior. With a grin, Samantha wondered how long it would take John to learn good behavior.

On the way home from class, she would stop at the dollar store and buy treats and medals for her posse of heroes.