With her neighbor’s orange tabby in her arms, Kaylie headed for the sidewalk that connected their apartments. She had just moved into the complex the week prior and was looking forward to meeting all her neighbors, including the elderly man living behind her. Finding his cat trapped in the garbage bin on her patio gave her a great excuse. When she stepped around the corner, she spotted the old man sitting on his porch swing.
He scowled in her direction. “Are you coming over to return my morning newspaper?” he snapped.
Kaylie turned her head to see if someone else stood behind her, but found only the empty walkway. “No, sir,” she said politely, if not slightly confused. “I haven’t seen your newspaper.”
He eyed her suspiciously, looking at the cat she was cradling to her chest, and then back to her face. “Then what are you doing here?”
“I’m Kaylie,” she began, trying her best to sound cheerful. “I live in the apartment directly behind yours. Your cat managed to get itself trapped in—”
“That’s not my cat.”
She stared at him a moment, nonplussed. “But I—I saw you feeding him on your patio when I got home from work yesterday. I just assumed…”
“Feeding him doesn’t make him my cat, does it?”
His glare burned her skin. She bit her tongue to avoid saying the sarcastic words she was thinking. Strike one. The old man shifted in his seat and the tattoos on his arm caught her attention. The first was an anchor with the letters U.S.N. splayed across the front. Below the military emblem was the name Catherine in thick, stylized letters.
She decided to use that as an opportunity to change the subject. “My grandpa had a Navy tattoo like yours,” she told him. “Were you also in World War Two?”
He glanced away from her and shrugged. “So what if I was.”
“Well, I, uh… I appreciate your service to this country,” she said lamely. Strike two. This man was impossible!
She set the cat down on the ground. “So, who is Catherine?” she tried again.
As soon as the words were out of her mouth she regretted them. Her neighbor flinched at the name, and a painful expression twisted his features. “That’s none of your business,” he growled, his face hardening with anger. “Get out of my yard and stop bothering me.”
She took a step backwards and the cat scurried away. “I—I’m sorry, sir,” she stammered. “I shouldn’t have asked that.” Heat rose up her cheeks. “I just—l wasn’t trying to be nosy.” She sighed. Strike three.
Before she could figure out how to gracefully exit the awkward encounter, a noisy sedan pulled into the parking lot behind her. A short woman with curly, gray-blond hair climbed out of the car—Marge, another neighbor.
“You better be nice to her, Ben!” Marge called out to the elderly man. “Kaylie is new here!” She gave Kaylie a sideways glance and muttered, “I warned you about him.” She reached back into her car to grab a paper sack with a head of lettuce sticking out the top.
Kaylie stepped toward her, hopeful that she had found an escape. “Would you like some help with your groceries?” she asked.
“Sure, dear,” Marge replied, handing off a couple of bags. Kaylie breathed a silent sigh of relief.
As they walked back to Marge’s apartment, Kaylie could hear Ben grumbling to himself, but she couldn’t quite make out what he was saying.
“It’s best if you just ignore him, Kaylie,” Marge cautioned. “Ben doesn’t have a nice bone in his body. Any kindness you show him will just be met with disdain.” She chuckled ruefully. “Believe me, I know!”
“I think he might have lost someone special to him,” Kaylie said with a frown, still feeling guilty about mentioning his Catherine tattoo.
Marge shook her head. “Ben’s just a miserable old man who enjoys making everyone around him miserable. Just leave him be.”
Kaylie nodded and let the subject drop. But when she left Marge’s apartment, she couldn’t stop thinking about Ben. Before her grandpa died, he had told her family many stories about his time in the war and the men he served with. For all she knew, Ben could have been one of them. She wanted to show him that she was sincere, that she really did want to be friends. Besides, it bothered her to think one of her neighbors didn’t like her.
Her parents knew every neighbor on their street and were good friends with several of them. It made Kaylie feel safe while growing up. And maybe it was idealistic of her, but now that she was living on her own, she wanted a similar experience with her own neighbors. She just needed a plan, a foolproof strategy to cheer up and befriend the cantankerous old man. A smile suddenly came to her face. She knew just the thing to do.
The following day was Sunday, and as soon as Kaylie was home from church, she made up a batch of chocolate-chip cookies swirled with caramel and sprinkled with coconut. The sweet fragrance filled her home and lifted her spirits. She placed several cookies on a porcelain plate and tied it with a blue ribbon, feeling confident that even someone as surly as Ben wouldn’t be able to resist these freshly baked treats. They had been quite popular with her college study groups.
When she arrived at Ben’s apartment, she knocked softly and waited, glancing around his small patio. Yellow, purple and scarlet blossoms bloomed in colorful containers along the perimeter. And then her eyes rested on a cluster of flowers wilting near his porch swing. It pained her to see such beautiful flowers languishing in the early summer heat. She picked up the metal watering can that sat near the door, filled it at the spigot and gave the thirsty plants a drink.
Before she could return the container to its place, the door opened and Ben stood glowering at her from the threshold. “What are you doing on my porch?”
“I brought you chocolate cookies,” she declared with pride. “We are neighbors, after all.” She held up the decorated plate and planted a wide smile on her face. “And we didn’t get off to such a great start yesterday.”
Ben looked at the cookies and frowned. Then he glanced at the watering can in her hand and down at his purple flowers.
“Your plants needed some water,” she explained.
His face softened for a brief moment. “My daughter always used to…” his voice trailed off. Then his eyes sharpened and his scowl returned. “I don’t want any cookies. Get off my porch and leave me alone.”
“But I—I made them especially for you.” She pushed the plate toward him, hoping to tempt him with the sweet aroma.
“I don’t like chocolate. And get these cookies out of my face!” He brought his hand up and knocked the plate out of her grasp, sending the chocolate treats into the air. The plate hit the ground and shattered. “Now get off my porch and leave me alone!” he bellowed, and slammed the door closed.
She stood there frozen for a moment, looking at the mess on Ben’s patio. Cookies, chocolaty crumbs and pieces of the broken plate were scattered everywhere. She set down the watering can and tried her best to clean everything up.
Marge walked by as Kaylie was picking up the last cookie. She paused to take in the scene, and then shook her head and gave Kaylie a stern look. “You’re just wasting your time,” she scolded. “I know you’re young and you’re trying to be nice, but Ben doesn’t want friends.”
With tears welling up in her eyes, Kaylie stood up and ran home.
That night, as she lay in bed staring at the ceiling, her thoughts foamed and churned. Maybe Marge is right, she thought. Ben did seem to enjoy making others feel miserable. Maybe being nice to him was a waste of time. Fine, she decided, crossing her arms over her chest. The next time she saw that irascible old man she would ignore him, pretend he didn’t even exist. He would probably prefer that anyway.
Kaylie’s job kept her busy throughout the week and steered her mind away from her infamous neighbor. She left work Friday afternoon feeling relieved that she hadn’t seen him since that fateful day with the cookies. When she pulled into the parking lot at her apartment complex, Ben was sitting on his porch swing. Her stomach instantly tightened into knots.
She parked her car and turned the engine off, wishing there was another way to get home without walking by his patio. She blew out a puff of air. Oh, well. Squaring her jaw, she climbed out of the car, determined to ignore him.
The orange tabby was lying across his lap, and she couldn’t help rolling her eyes, remembering how he had insisted the cat wasn’t his. And for what reason? Just to be a jerk? She kept her focus straight ahead and walked past him without saying a word. From the corner of her eye she could see him following her movement. Frustration and annoyance bubbled inside of her. Before she stepped around the corner, she stole a quick glance at his face—and caught his smug expression as he watched her.
She stopped and turned to face him. “What?” she demanded. “Why are you so mean? We’re neighbors for crying out loud! But you—I made you cookies and you—you’re just mean!” She turned and stormed away, her eyes burning with tears.
She unlocked her apartment and flopped down on her couch, feeling terrible. She had been horribly rude. He had hurt her feelings, but that was no excuse for her to overreact and yell at him. She groaned with embarrassment. If she only loved those who loved her in return, what credit was that to her? The commandment was to love your neighbor. And that meant even the grumpy ones.
She grabbed her cell phone and dialed her mom’s number. She needed some advice.
“I think you already know what you need to do,” her mom said after hearing the story.
Kaylie wrinkled her nose. “But—”
“God put you in that apartment for a reason, sweetheart. Just be faithful. He has a plan.”
Kaylie hung up and rested her head in her hands with a sigh. Her notoriously encouraging mother was right.
The following morning Kaylie walked back over to Ben’s apartment. She grimaced when she saw how many of the flowers in his care were drooping despairingly over the edges of their containers. She placed her fists on her hips in consideration for a moment, and then quietly lifted the watering can and emptied it over the dehydrated blossoms.
Satisfied that the plants would survive, she turned and rapped on Ben’s door. It opened with a creak. “Have you come here to return the newspaper’s you’ve been stealing?” he asked abruptly.
“What? No, I haven’t been stealing your newspapers.” She let out an exasperated breath. “I came here to tell you that I’m sorry.”
“Sorry,” he snorted. “Sorry about what?”
“For being rude to you,” she stated. “I yelled at you yesterday and I wanted to apologize. That’s all. I won’t take up any more of your time.”
She turned to leave, fully expecting him to let out a crisp retort. Instead, he was quiet. She walked back to her apartment with a light heart, resolving to treat Ben with kindness, regardless how he responded, simply because it was the right thing to do.
She began to check on Ben’s flowers every morning. It was something small that she could do for him and it made her feel good. The sun was hot and unforgiving during these long days of summer, and if the flowers were left unwatered for too long they would die.
Whenever she saw Ben on his patio, she’d smile and offer him a friendly greeting. Sometimes he would nod; mostly he would act as if he didn’t see or hear her, and continue stroking the orange tabby sleeping in his lap.
Autumn swiftly approached.
She went to sleep one night thankful for the cooler temperatures and imagining how lovely the complex grounds would look when the trees began changing into their red and gold leafy garments. She awoke sometime later to the sound of banging on her front door. She glanced toward her alarm clock, but the screen was blank. The power was out.
Judging by the darkness outside, it wasn’t yet dawn. Who would be knocking at the door at such an odd hour? The banging came again and she jumped out of bed.
Was that smoke she smelled? She pulled on a shirt and a pair of jeans and opened her bedroom door. A burst of warm air splashed over her. Smoke poured into her room and collected in the air above her bed. Despite the balmy temperature, an icy shiver ran down her spine. Her heart began to pound. Was her apartment on fire? She ran into her living room and shrieked.
The corner of her couch was an inferno. Flames climbed the curtains around the window near the front door. Could she even get out? From where she stood, the heat was overwhelming. Thick, black clouds billowed up and swirled around, burning her throat and lungs. She peered frantically up at the smoke detector. Why didn’t the alarm go off? She immediately glanced around the room, trying to determine what she could save. She snatched a photo album off her bookcase and darted toward her laptop, but the smoke surrounded her, unwilling to permit her any further.
She dropped to her knees, choking and hacking and gasping for breath. Her head began to throb. She squinted through the dense, hazy air toward the front door; the area was now completely engulfed in flames. Panic seized her, paralyzing her with fear. How was she going to escape? The blaze roared and raged around her, consuming her home, threatening to extinguish her very existence.
Glass shattered in her bedroom and she heard someone yelling, but she was coughing too fiercely to respond. She bent over the floor, afraid she might vomit. She could hear sirens blaring in the distance. A moment later, Ben appeared with a hammer in his hand. “Get out this way!” he bellowed.
She stared at him through stinging, watering eyes. Her legs refused to obey when she tried to stand. She felt weak and disoriented.
“You need to get out, now!” He grasped her arm and yanked her to her feet. Her head swam with dizziness. She could feel his muscles tremble with fatigue as he dragged her back into the bedroom and carried her over the shattered glass on the floor. She clung limply to his shoulder.
Ben lifted her up and helped her through the broken window. He spoke a few more words to her but she couldn’t understand them. She lay on the ground and tried to force air into her charred lungs. Fire trucks were arriving, and men were shouting and dragging hoses toward the building. People moved quickly around her, blurring and fading into the flashing, dancing lights of the trucks. She could no longer comprehend what was happening. Everything became surreal, all moving colors and muffled noises.
Someone lifted her up and placed something over her face. She felt herself being carried somewhere and then her surroundings slipped and faded into darkness and silence.
When Kaylie opened her eyes, she was in a hospital bed. The bright light in the room made her squint as she glanced around. Her right arm was hooked up to an I.V. and she could feel a mask strapped over her mouth and nose. A cheerful looking nurse stepped toward her. “How are you feeling?” the nurse asked softly.
Kaylie had a mild headache and her throat felt dry. “What happened?” she heard herself mumble, and then the memory of the fire slammed into her. She sat up, yanking the mask away from her face. “Where’s Ben? Is—is he okay?”
“You were brought here a couple of hours ago,” the nurse replied. Her voice was gentle and soothing. “You inhaled a lot of smoke, but your lungs are young and strong. We expect a full recovery.” The nurse handed Kaylie a cup of water, which she eagerly accepted. She emptied the cup in three painful gulps and handed it back.
“Kaylie!” a familiar voice rang out from the hallway and both of Kaylie’s parents rushed into the room. “We’re so sorry, honey! We got here as soon as we could.” Her mother grabbed her hand.
“How is she?” her father asked the nurse.
“She should be fine,” the nurse assured him. “I’ll go get the doctor.” The nurse turned and left the room.
“How are you feeling?” her mother asked, brushing the hair off her forehead.
“I’m alright.” Kaylie swallowed carefully. “I don’t understand what happened. How did the fire start?”
“It’s still under investigation,” her father explained, “but it’s an old apartment complex. It was probably an electrical short.”
“We’re just thankful you’re not hurt,” her mother said. She smiled and bent down to kiss Kaylie’s cheek.
The nurse returned with the doctor. “We’d like to monitor Kaylie for the next 24 hours,” the doctor informed Kaylie’s parents.
“How is Ben doing?” Kaylie asked again. “Is he here? He helped me out of my apartment and I wanted to thank him.”
The nurse’s eyes fluttered to the doctor before settling on the floor.
“Kaylie,” the doctor began with a sigh, and Kaylie could feel the tendrils of dread trickling into her chest. “Ben was too old. His body couldn’t handle the smoke inhalation. He didn’t make it.”
All of the air left Kaylie’s lungs at his words, as if she’d been kicked in the ribs. She clutched at her nauseous stomach.
“Ben was a brave man,” the doctor continued. “He knew the risks when he entered your burning apartment. You can rest assured he had no regrets over it.”
“But—he saved my life,” she whispered. “I wanted to thank him. I wanted—” Kaylie’s voice abandoned her. She shook her head as tears slid down her face.
Ben’s funeral was held at a large, grassy cemetery near the apartment complex. Kaylie stood in the middle of the small group of attendees. The memorial service was short and simple, and when it was finished, Kaylie nodded respectfully toward Ben’s casket and turned to leave.
“Excuse me, miss!” A middle-aged man wearing a dark-gray business suit approached her. “Is your name Kaylie by chance?” he asked.
“Yes, it is.”
“My name is Robert.” He reached out and shook her hand. “Ben was my father-in-law. I was married to his daughter, Julia, you see. I wanted to thank you for everything you did for him. He wrote about you in his journal and your kindness meant a lot to him.”
She stared at Robert in astonishment. “Really? I mean—I know he rescued me but I—I really didn’t think Ben liked me…”
Robert chuckled, but his eyes looked sad. “I think Ben had trouble showing his feelings. “He lost both Julia and his wife in a house fire about ten years ago,” Robert explained. “Julie was staying with them while I was away on business and there was an old space heater and…” Regret shadowed his face. “Well, Ben was never the same after that. He blamed God. He blamed himself for not being home when the fire started. He blamed me. He moved into that apartment and shut everyone out of his life.”
Kaylie didn’t know what to say.
Robert pulled a small leather book out of his suit jacket. “This is Ben’s journal. I’d like you read one of the entries.” He thumbed through a few pages and then pushed the leather-bound book into her hands. “This is dated about a week before his death.”
I prayed today, first time in over a decade. God has shown me love and forgiveness by bringing that kind-hearted girl into my life. She’s so much like my Julia. I guess it’s time for me to stop being so angry. I’m ready for Heaven. I want to see my Julia and my beautiful Catherine again.
Kaylie’s chest felt tight. “Thank you for sharing that with me,” she said, wiping at a stray tear. “I had no idea.”
Robert smiled again. “Well, I won’t take up any more of your time. I’m glad you were here, Kaylie. I was hoping to get a chance to meet you. You really made a difference with him.”
She turned to walk away when a thought struck her. “Hey, Robert,” she called to him. “Ben had an orange tabby cat that he was taking care of. Do you know what happened to it?”
“Yes, it’s in my car actually. I was planning to take it to the cat shelter after the funeral.”
“Do you think I could take him instead?” she asked. “I’d love to have him.”
“Well, now, I don’t see why not.”
She followed Robert back to his car and waited while he pulled out a small, pink pet carrier from the back seat.
“Thank you, Robert. I’ll take great care of him.”
She lifted the carrier and peered inside at the cat sleeping contentedly on a thick blanket. “You need a name, don’t you?” she said. She thought for a moment and then quirked one side of her mouth. “I think I’ll call you Ben.”