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Life In A Bubble

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Bliss. Perfect bliss.

If anything wonderful could come out of this dreadful time, this moment was it.

Rodney took a last, deep breath and opened his eyes, tapping on the tablet, double checking his information, name, address, prior pet ownership experience, household environment for a new pet, finding everything accurate as he had typed it in on the website for the city animal shelter. The tabby cat about-to-be-his continued to rest across his shoulders, purring and softly making air biscuits with her front paws. His expectations had been low when he'd filled out the application and made an appointment with the shelter, only knowing that if he had to spend another moment in his house with no other living being around, he'd go mad. Thankfully, his expectations had been more than surpassed; this cat was perfection.

If he'd mentioned his loneliness to his sister, she would have been cruel in that way she pretended was kind. He should have a wife and kids, that would solve his problem. She had a husband and a daughter and she was the younger sibling, she'd done these things before him. He'd grow old, lonely, decrepit, and unloved if he didn't get out and find someone who could tolerate him. As if there was anywhere he could go to meet anyone during a pandemic. Dating had always been difficult for him; he couldn't imagine trying it over Zoom. 

Even his sister might be impressed by how quickly this cat had gotten attached to Rodney. The gloved and masked volunteer had left him waiting in a small room and put the cat inside, quickly shutting the door so that the two humans never got within six feet of each other. Rodney had kneeled on the floor, reaching out one hand and making encouraging noises. To his shock and delight, the cat had walked right over, rolling onto her back on the tile, purring as Rodney caressed her belly.

The biggest surprise was when he tried to stand and pick her up at the same time. Tiny claws had dug into his arm, climbing up until she could drape herself comfortably over his broad shoulders, purring loudly. His attempts to pull her off were unsuccessful, and since the shelter was mostly deserted, Rodney had let her stay as he walked to the counter in the lobby to grab a tablet and complete his application.

"Wow, that's pretty amazing," a man's voice said, and Rodney glanced over to see a slim figure appraising him from several feet away. "Are you just adopting that cat?"

The man's green eyes were beautiful, almost the emerald of his polo shirt. He didn't have a proper mask but the blue paisley bandana sufficiently covered his nose and mouth. No matter what his sister said, Rodney wasn't a hypochondriac, but he did have pre-existing conditions, both high blood pressure and allergies. Noting when people were properly attired for protection against covid was a sensible habit. So many people were still treating the pandemic with disbelief, as if the deaths in New York could never reach California.

Rodney beamed, feeling the delicious warmth of happiness, conscious that the stranger couldn't see his smile, only his eyes. This cat loved him and this total stranger with beautiful eyes thought it was cool. At least one decent moment was happening in this hellish existence and someone was sharing it with him. "She came right up to me and climbed up here."

John smiled behind his bandana. Being at the shelter was his first time around people in two weeks. Knowing that John was having to take a variety of flights to get back to the states from Antarctica, his brother had badgered him to quarantine in his house, even though the government didn't require it. Dave lived close to New York, had seen first hand how bad the virus could be, and John had promised his brother to take it seriously. John never minded taking risks for himself, but it was a different matter when other people were involved.

If he hadn't allowed himself one morning run every day, well before lights were on in most houses, John thought he might have gone quietly insane with the loneliness and isolation of his self-imposed quarantine. Exercise always helped his head. He'd never thought of himself as much of a people person, but then people had always been around. Even McMurdo felt like being in the middle of a busy mall compared to being alone in his own house.

Few people were in the shelter, and everyone was wearing masks, covering half of their faces. Not being able to see facial expressions was disconcerting, but this fellow had beautiful blue eyes that were shining with his happiness. John found his obvious excitement soothing. At least venturing out of his house had brought him around one happy person today. "Definitely cool."

One of the volunteers was filming the fellow and the purring cat, though John wasn't sure if blue eyes realized. People were crazy about filming everything these days. It might make a good snippet for a promotional video for the shelter, he supposed. John was jealous of his mask, a cloth one made from a dark blue fabric with stars scattered on it.

Rodney froze as a volunteer approached green eyes with a golden dog with a white underbelly on a leash. "Is that a pit bull?"

"He's a mix, but probably has some Staffordshire Terrier in him," John answered, catching the end of the leash close to the dog's neck as the volunteer dropped the end and stepped away. "Hey, she's—"

Rodney had reached back, catching hold of his new cat, but she seemed undisturbed by the close proximity of a dog, content to remain on her perch. "She's what?"

"She seems okay but she's definitely giving me a look."

"What kind of a look?" Rodney asked, craning his head around, trying to get a good view of her face.

"Like she's cautious but not afraid." John dropped to one knee, ruffling the short fur around his dog's neck. "They said you were good with cats, didn't they? Yeah, good puddle jumper."

Rodney suddenly understood why his sister occasionally talked about her ovaries exploding or melting, a statement that he usually greeted with irritation. Green eyes was cooing at the dog, who looked shy for such a solid-looking dog. The dog tentatively inclined his head forward, and green eyes bumped their foreheads together. The almost paternal affection from the man and the responsiveness of the furred creature was…surprisingly adorable. The name was stupid though. "His name is Puddle Jumper?"

"Nah, I'm just hoping he'll like to jump puddles. I used to run with a lab, she loved to splash in water. I always came home soaking wet." Hopefully the dog would actually like to run. The shelters were clearing out quickly, leaving mostly pit bull mixes and chihuahuas. The shelter workers had made it clear that John needed to make his choice quickly and from a limited section. Lingering was not allowed. He'd never been around chihuahuas much, but they seemed too small to be good runners. Simon looked like a dog who could keep up with him, and the adoption counselor said he was sweet and responsive.

A clerk came out from behind the counter, holding a tablet out with her gloved fingers on one side. "I've pulled up your record, Mr. Sheppard, and entered the dog's information. If you could review and confirm your intent to adopt?"

John took the tablet gingerly, careful to keep his fingers on one side and away from hers. He was still getting accustomed to being so careful about touching other people and things. "Sure. And call me John."

The tone of the clerk's voice was bright as she asked Rodney, "And are you done, Mr. McKay?"

Rodney wondered if she'd been smiling at John. Even with half his face covered, his green eyes and spiky dark hair were attractive, his body lean and lightly muscled. "Rodney," he answered. "Yes, all done."

"If you could—"

Rodney held the tablet out and she took it, quickly scanning the information.

"Hi Kaylee, it's time to go home." This time she allowed him to pull her off his shoulders, seeming to understand they were leaving. He cuddled her for a few moments in his arms, surprised to see John staring at him. "What?"

John shook his head. "Nothing. She looks like she's going to a good home."

The compliment was warming, and Rodney realized that though he had gotten a cat for his own purposes, to have some other living being in the house, he was going to give little Kaylee a good home, a place for her to roam with multiple nice spots for napping. "Thank you."

 

#

 

Rodney might not even have noticed the white car behind him, except that the roads were so eerily empty. With the state in lock down, most people were working at home, and not able to visit the mall or any other activity that they might do in the middle of the day. Cars were few and far between, except the white one that stayed with him all the way from downtown to midtown and finally into his neighborhood.

At a stop sign a block from his house, Rodney finally stopped the car, put on his mask and stomped out, stopping by the driver's window, and crossing his arms. The driver was indeed John from the animal shelter, as he had thought from looking in the rear view. "Why are you following me?"

John was surprised to see Rodney step out of the car in front of him, and as soon as he realized the other man was approaching him, hastened to pull his bandana up before rolling down his windows. Simon sat next to him on the passenger seat, but thankfully didn't seem inclined to leap out. The dog had been a little nervous during the drive, like he might not be too familiar with cars. Maybe there still would be a dog park open; John wanted Simon to associate the car with going to fun places. But first, he needed to get his new acquaintance out of his way home. "Is something wrong? We shouldn't be parked in the street like this."

"Oh, look around!" Rodney threw out his hands wide, swiveling his upper body toward one side and then the other. "No one else is coming. No one is on the road. They are all safe at home, where I would like to be, except you keep following me. Why are you following me?"

John had noticed that he'd gotten behind a slow driver and thought about going around him, but instead had let the leisurely speed give him time to look around at his new city. "I wasn't following you." Well, not intentionally. He didn't think Rodney would appreciate being told he drove like an old lady and was sloppy on turns. "I'm going home, that's all."

"And your house just happens to be in my neighborhood?"

"It's on that street." John pointed to the street sign at the intersection, then slid his finger toward the east. His nerves were weirdly on alert. After two excruciating weeks all alone, having this guy be mad at him was somehow worse than the last time his commanding officer had screamed at him. At least then he'd been expecting it and felt completely justified in his actions.

Rodney crossed his arms and glared again. "You just happen to live on that street."

"Yes."

Rodney repeated John's gesture of pointing at the street sign then waving. "That street."

"Yes, really, that street. Two blocks over." Simon whined, as if not liking the tension, and John skritched him on the neck in reassurance. Rodney of the beautiful blue eyes and the faint Canadian accent was getting tiresome. "Can we get this settled so we can get home?"

"Yes, certainly, if you—" Then Rodney's face contorted with frustration as he realized where John may live. "Did you buy the old Neller place?"

"He wasn't old, but his name was Neller, yes. George Neller."

This was his new neighbor? "I didn't see you take a tour of it."

"We're in a pandemic. The real estate agent carried her phone around and showed me the place."

"You bought a house without seeing it in person?"

"We're in a pandemic, so yeah."

"Everything okay, Doctor?"

They both glanced over at a woman standing on the sidewalk, maskless, looking concerned.

"Yes, everything's fine," Rodney said, not recognizing the woman and irritated that she wasn't wearing a mask. It wasn't required when out walking for exercise, but the government's inability to mandate the appropriate precautions didn't seem any reason to be stupid. Not that most people even needed a reason to be stupid; it was often their default setting in Rodney's estimation. "Why are you asking?"

"You're stopped in the street, Doctor. It's an unusual thing to do. I just wanted to make sure everything was okay."

"Yes, everything's fine," Rodney snapped, giving an exasperated look at John who stared back at him impatiently. At him, who had made a fool of himself by accosting someone who was legitimately driving home. "Welcome to the neighborhood," he huffed, before tromping back to his car, getting in and starting driving. Of all the coincidences, he and his new neighbor had rescued animals at the same time. That was probably the first and last thing they had in common. At least he planned to keep Kaylee as an indoor cat, so he didn't have to worry about the pit bull chasing her.

And how had that woman known he was a doctor? Who was she? It wasn't the first time someone had called him doctor in the neighborhood, but usually it had been one of his immediate neighbors. A few of them had introduced themselves when he moved in, so he knew he'd given his title then.

John began to follow Rodney, not incredibly surprised when he pulled into the driveway next door to his house. No wonder they'd driven the same route. He hadn't seen Rodney once during the two weeks of his quarantine, did the man never leave the house? He'd noticed the families around him, the adults gardening, kids playing. Hopefully Rodney would realize that their meeting at the animal shelter was only a weird coincidence, and not decide John was a stalker who'd deliberately bought the house next to him for better access to him. Rodney seemed uptight, his eyes irritated then disbelieving, his voice sharp as he'd approached John.

And apparently a doctor. A medical one? If so, hopefully his bedside manner was more like he'd been in the animal shelter. That Rodney had seemed like a very cool guy.

John left Simon in the car, then came around to the passenger side and opened the door slightly, standing in the gap and grabbing Simon's leash. He didn't think the dog would bolt or try to chase Rodney's cat, but didn't want to give him a chance.

Rodney already had a crate out and was carrying his cat toward his house. John gave a quiet, "Hey."

Pausing, Rodney looked at John, feeling oddly embarrassed at having made a scene at the intersection. He'd hoped to escape into his house before John was out of his car. "Yes?"

"Just wanted to say," John shrugged. "I'm glad to be here?"

"It's a good neighborhood," Rodney said stiffly. "I hope you like it." He didn't give John a chance to respond, walking briskly toward his front door, cursing under his breath at having to unlock the door then take the time to get the crate inside. Thankfully, John didn't say anything else.

John watched as Rodney marched into his house, putting the crate inside first before shutting the front door behind him. Wow, his ass in worn jeans was firm and luscious, and John would dearly love to cup it with his hands. The guy was probably straight though; John's gaydar was lousy. With the pandemic, it was unlikely they'd get much more opportunity to interact. He grabbed the small bag of pet supplies that he'd bought at the shelter, curling one arm around it, while tugging on the leash with the other hand. Simon followed easily, as the adoption consultant had promised. After shutting the front door behind them, John unclipped the leash. "Okay, boy, sniff around or whatever."

As if not understanding, Simon sat back on his haunches and looked up at John, tilting his head to one side.

"You want a guided tour, huh? Well, this is the living room. It has white walls and beige carpet because that's what sellers seem to think buyers want. And it's got no furniture because my brother's shipping some of my mom's to me and now we're in a pandemic and I don't know when it's going to get here." He wandered through the rooms, the dog staying at his side, seemingly mesmerized by his words as he pointed out the three bedrooms, the two bathrooms, the dining room, and the kitchen.

"You know what we need, Simon? I need a beer. You want some water, huh?" He pulled a bowl out of the dog supplies, running water into it and setting it down at one end of the kitchen, before getting himself a beer. Simon drank eagerly but a little messily, drops of water splashing on the floor.

"I guess I need to add a mop to my list, don't I? I bought what I had to have right away online, but I didn't want to put too much on the delivery guys." He sprawled on his bean bag chair, the one piece of furniture in his living room, with his beer and phone, adding mop to his lengthy list, checking back to make sure he'd deleted everything already ordered. Simon sat on his haunches and watched him, until John patted his thigh. Simon responded, still looking a bit hesitant as he flopped down on the floor, his head close to John's leg.

John petted Simon. "I've never had a dog. I never thought I was settled enough. I used to run with a friend's dog, that was sweet. I always wanted one as a kid. Didn't fit with our lifestyle according to Dad. Of course, drinking beer and sitting on the floor wasn't Dad's lifestyle either. A three martini business lunch is fine, just not—" He sighed, taking a long drink from his can before returning to his list. His dad was gone, his career with the Air Force was over. Now was the time to focus on this new beginning.