As always, Pepper met him at the door when he entered his apartment. She wound herself around his feet, forcing his steps to pause, and looked with interest at the large paper bag he carried.
"Hey, Pep," Dennis greeted her. He set the grocery bag on the counter and bent to pet his cat.
Pepper was older now, and bigger, but still very much a lively kitten at heart. She jumped onto the counter to investigate the bag, sure that it contained something for her.
"Get out of there!" Dennis scolded, lifting her front half back out of the bag before dropping her gently to the floor. "Behave yourself."
The feline stretched up on hind legs to paw toward the countertop. "Mrrr?" she asked.
"We have a date tonight," Dennis informed his cat as he began emptying the paper grocery bag. "I'm going to make Caroline a homemade lasagna, and you are going to be on your best behavior. Or else," he added firmly with a knowing look at the little troublemaker.
He tossed the empty paper bag to the floor for Pepper to play in.
Pepper happily dove inside, delighting in the loud crinkles it made with her movements.
Dennis chuckled at the ample amount of tail protruding from the opening, twitching as Pepper pretended...whatever she was pretending in her little cat brain at the moment.
Pepper had grown larger and sleeker over the past few months, but she was still a bit fluffy in places. Her tail happened to be one of the fluffiest places.
Like a long black dustmop, it skimmed the floor as it swished back and forth before it darted inside the bag with the rest of the plump furry body.
Satisfied that his nuisance of a feline would be distracted with the bag for at least a little while, Dennis began his lasagna.
His date tonight — Caroline — was greatly impressed by men who were able to cook. So Dennis intended to show her that his cooking skills were not limited to a microwave and a frozen box dinner (even though that was pretty much what he lived on. Well, that and takeout food).
No, tonight Dennis was going to impress Caroline with a lasagna made entirely from scratch by his own two hands. His mom used to make lasagna all the time — how hard could it be?
Without warning Pepper suddenly blazed out of the paper bag and skidded into the livingroom, claws out and feet scrambling for grip on the slippery linoleum floor.
Something crashed in the livingroom.
"Demon cat," Dennis muttered to himself, not even bothering anymore to see what Pepper had broken this time.
Don't get him wrong — he loved his cat. She was a sweetheart when she wasn't being a demolitionist. She just happened to also be mildly insane.
Dennis set out the tools of his task: plastic mixing bowl, wooden spoon, glass baking dish, and a tall metal pot to boil the lasagna noodles in. He'd had to purchase these along with his ingredients because he had no such items already. He'd never needed them before.
Dennis consulted the recipe page that he'd torn from a magazine. It had a delicious-looking picture of what the finished product should look like.
He was confident in his potential ability to recreate that picture reasonably well.
Feeling very optimistic, Dennis began the first steps of the recipe.
First he filled the tall pot with water to boil the lasagna noodles in, set it on the largest stove burner, and turned the knob to "high".
Next he sprayed his baking dish with nonstick cooking oil and set it by his bowl on the work counter.
On cue, a furry black beast leapt onto the counter beside his bowl.
"Shoo!" Dennis flicked one hand in Pepper's direction.
She shooed, but not in the direction Dennis had expected her to go. Instead she hopped over the mixing bowl and landed neatly with all four feet in the middle of the glass baking dish.
"Get out of that!"
Dennis grabbed for her but Pepper was too fast. The baking dish sailed into the bowl thanks to the force of strong cat legs (was she part kangaroo?) jumping out of it.
The plastic bowl clattered to the floor, and the glass baking dish would have followed had Dennis not grabbed it in time.
He'd have to wash the dish again before he could use it. Dirty little cat feet had been in the litter box and everywhere else too and they didn't need to be in his food.
The empty bowl had landed right-side-up on the floor so Dennis figured it was still clean enough to use as-is.
But the glass baking dish — which Dennis had sprayed with the nonstick cooking oil — now sported greasy smeared paw prints in the bottom.
Persistently wanting to be involved in everything that her human did, Pepper vaulted onto the oversized, old-fashioned kitchen sink and watched in fascination as Dennis put soap and water into the dish and slopped it around with a rag.
She tried to grab the stream of water coming from the faucet but only succeeded in getting her paw wet. Offended, she turned her back on the sink and primly cleaned that evil wetness off her foot.
Dennis chuckled at Pepper's dislike of the water that she had stuck her own foot into.
He rinsed and dried his dish, and sprayed it once more with the nonstick cooking oil.
Pepper hopped again from the sink back to the counter that Dennis was using for his workstation.
He was never going to get his lasagna made if he kept stopping every ten seconds to remove the cat. So this time he decided to just ignore her.
And Pepper ignored him now too, but only because a fly had captured her attention instead.
It buzzed about, here and there, to and fro, finally coming to land on the rim of the bowl Dennis was now adding ingredients to.
Dennis halfheartedly swatted at the fly with the same hand that held the salt shaker just as Pepper pounced at the winged intruder.
She didn't catch the fly but she did succeed in knocking the salt shaker out of Dennis' hand and right into the bowl of lasagna filling.
Dennis sighed stiffly, closing his eyes and clenching his teeth.
"She's just a cat," he said out loud to keep his actions in check. "She doesn't know better. Her brain's the size of a peach pit."
He shooed Pepper off the counter once again and picked the salt shaker out of the lasagna filling. Hopefully not much salt had escaped into the bowl to corrupt his recipe.
He rinsed off the salt shaker and put it in the cupboard for safekeeping. He hesitated a moment over his bowl before deciding to just stir it all up and not worry about the extra salt.
Oh, he'd forgotten to preheat the oven. And his noodle water was already boiling.
Dennis only turned his back for a minute, but it was enough time for Pepper to resume her self-appointed place on the counter.
This time she investigated the bowl of filling and boldly helped herself to it.
"Are you kidding me?!" Dennis bellowed at the cat. He grabbed the nearest object — his flimsy dishtowel — and flung it at her. "Good-for-nothing monster!"
Pepper sprang away from the flying dishtowel, her back legs hitting the bowl and sending it crashing to the floor once again. Upside down this time, of course.
Defeated, Dennis wiped his hands down his face. "I give up."
Forcing himself not to throw everything in his kitchen at his destructive little marauder, he picked up the phone instead.
Dennis had two options: cancel dinner, or order it delivered.
His opportunity to woo Caroline with a homemade meal was ruined. He couldn't salvage the food but he could still salvage the rest of the evening if he acted quickly.
Grumbling to himself about a four-legged miniature terrorist, he dialed a number he knew by heart.
"Tony's Take-out and Delivery," the voice on the other end of the line greeted.
A very aggravated Dennis placed his order.