The heels of her plastic flip-flops dragged on the ground as she crossed the cement bridge, pausing for a second to look out at the river below. It’s root-beer-colored, she thought. The brown water offset the lush green clovers and weeds that grew in tufts around it. On TV or in a YA novel, she’d be flanked by other girls or some boy would be trying to pull her back or she’d be about to wreak havoc by trying to jump off the bridge after trying alcohol for the first time or something. Standing alone and trying to fit her hands in her tiny shorts pockets, she mulled through each of these scenarios while edging pebbles off the bridge’s edge with her toes and watching them fall. Ridiculous.
The bridge was called “Memorial Bridge,” but she had no idea what it was a memorial for. She thought of how many times she’d driven past one “Memorial School” or other, especially in small towns. The subject of the ‘memorial’ was easier to track if the landmark was named for the individual, like “Smith High School” or something, but the name still loses its meaning to most. Kids in the area would eventually shudder at the name of “Smith,” associating it with their middle-school years rather than the dedicated school board member or poet or whoever lived the life deemed worthy of an etching in the city’s brick.
On the other side of the bridge, she looked up at the sun to try to estimate the time. It was almost near the top of the sky. She’d already had lunch, and there was a long time until dinner. She figured she’d go to the lake for awhile. Maybe run into a friend. Hopefully not run into anyone from school.
The city had just installed a tunnel under the highway to the bridge. She took the service road town from the bridge to the tunnel, and rubbed her arms a bit, as for some reason tunnels remain distinctly colder than even the shade-patches outside. Also, the ground in tunnels stays wetter. Tiny droplets of water flew up from her flip-flops as she walked and stuck to her calves. Her nose wrinkled with mild disgust as it landed.
It was warmer out the tunnel’s other side, and the lake twinkled and lapped to greet her. She shoved her hands in her pockets again and made sure her quarters were still there. She watched a Porsche roll by, like a double rainbow around here, and wished she was a few years older and had her license.
As usual, clusters of young families dappled the beach in a sort of pastel cowspot pattern, with towels and t-shirts and floppy hats and coolers and inevitably some mom or older sibling yelling for the diaper-clad toddler trying to make a break for the water on his or her own. Nobody looked familiar.
She didn’t have her swimsuit or anything but didn’t really feel like swimming, anyway, she’d dipped her toes in the water and it was probably way too cold, so she decided to go sit out on a rock. Maybe get some sun on her legs. Relax, y’know, she said, suggesting the idea to herself as if talking to a friend. Yeah, sounds good.
She lasted all of eight minutes on the rock before deciding to hit the gas station. The walk was uphill, and she felt herself perspiring a little extra. Her forehead, neck, and underarms were already filmy from the heat. On the sidewalk next to the station, a small girl stood hunched over, staring at something on the ground. As she walked at as far a radius as possible from the girl, she craned to see what the girl was looking at. Some kind of crumpled-up bird, she observed, quickly looking away.
The bells that rang on most convenience-store doors made her feel alternately welcomed, distrusted, and livestock-like. The air-conditioning gave her an instant, involuntary shiver, like it had grabbed her and made her shudder. She wove her way around a man in the aisle with Pop-Tarts to make a beeline for the fridges, picked a cream soda from the back of the shelf, and proceeded to the checkout.
The door rang (clanged) again. “Daddy!” came a small voice. The small girl from outside ran to the man in the aisle.
“Yeah?” He replied.
“Daddy, come outside!” The girl was probably tugging at his clothes and stuff, too, she thought at the checkout while digging the coins out of her pocket. She watched the girl and her dad leave, opened the top of her bottle, and stepped out of the cool air, not letting the door finish jangling goodbye.
“Dad, we have to save it! Dad, you’re not doing anything, what are we going to do?” The girl sounded panicked.
She rounded the corner to head home, but paused a few steps behind the girl and her dad. Though he wasn’t talking, he was bent over as well.
“Daddy, it’s gonna die,” she whimpered.
He knelt on the ground. For the first time, she looked at the bird and focused. She hadn’t really looked at a bird for more than a passing second in awhile. From her vantage point, the bird looked pretty far gone. “Sarah, the bird lived its life. But now, the cats have to eat too. Think of all the cats who live around here and don’t have a home, or anyone to feed them.”
She watched the girl stand up and sniffle. Pulling her free hand out of her pocket, she thought of her own cat at home, and the turkey slices that had been in her sandwich at lunch. Letting the cold bottle hang at her side between two fingers, bumping her leg as she walked, she walked home, choosing to pass through the gas pumps and round the block on the other side rather than directly pass bird, girl, and father.
She trained her eyes to the cement sidewalk right before her feet the whole way home. It had never been alive. She wondered if it was necessary. She wondered if it was tiny rocks, or some kind of paste solidified, or something else entirely. She let herself into the house with the key under the garden rock to the left of the porch. Neither of her parents had drawn the curtains in the living room before going to work. The cat was basking in the single strip of light across the floor, orange fur glowing. She picked him up and flopped back onto the couch, letting her bottle fall to the floor as she buried her face in his downy-soft fur.
She had no idea how she and this obese cat had reached the top of some sterilized, plastic-wrapped food chain stamped with red-and-blue logos. She had no idea why she was pressing her face into a cat instead of a turkey, even though she decided the cat must be considerably softer. She was still on the couch by the time her dad got home. After contemplating asking him, she figured he wouldn’t have an answer like the man from the Pop-Tart aisle. She rolled the cat off her lap, ran to her father, and hugged him, burying her face in his stomach. Her mom and brother received similar hugs when they arrived home. When the dish of chicken got sent around the dinner table, she took it in her thin, youth-spindly fingers, picked up the serving fork, and looked down into it.