The boy, Calvin, was handsomer than his sister. His hair was dark and his pale eyes were hooded by long, straight lashes that made him seem to be peering at his object of interest with special intensity. He would grow into a brutal man whose beauty remained undiminished even after his charm faded, which happened early. But as yet he was a boy of twelve and small for his age. He stared out of the big kitchen window toward the street.
“Where are the kittens?” asked his sister Min, finding their box next to the stove empty.
“She must have moved them again.”
The mother cat strode past in the hallway, making a short murmuring sound in her throat.
“She’s looking for them,” Min said. “That’s the sound she makes when she’s looking for them.”
“Maybe she forgot where she put them.”
“Very funny.” The girl downed the rest of her Diet Coke and went into her bedroom. At her dressing table, a gift from her mother for her fourteenth birthday, she fingered an assortment of creams and makeups and applied a pale pink lip gloss, almost white, that she had admired in a music video. In a little while, she would walk down to the playground to meet Josh. Her mother worked two jobs in the interest of keeping their house — a shabby rancher, and on this busy road, which had made it a bargain — and paid the children little attention. Min didn’t mind. Calvin did. He stole beer from the supermarket, lifting single bottles from a six-pack and shoving them under his jacket, waiting to be caught. Once a manager cornered him at the end of the refrigerated aisle, took in his small stature, his pale gaze, and let him off with a lecture.
The cat was patrolling the hallway, back and forth, her murmurs growing ever more frantic. There were three kittens, one black, the other two gray tabbies. There had been four to begin with, but Calvin had stepped on one and crushed it.
“Who let it out of its box?” Min demanded.
“It was an accident. I didn’t mean to.” Calvin sounded sly at first but then broke down and wept piteously. Their mother wasn’t home. Min, allergic to cats, had to admire them from a distance, but she wept, too. She took Calvin in her arms, patted his back. Calvin’s wish was to get even, never mind for what.
At the playground Josh would be waiting. There was an overgrown tangle of junipers on a hill behind the tennis courts. You could make a nest on the ground underneath and no one would see you. Min’s wish was to climb into someone else’s chest — someone male — and snuggle there.
She uncovered the lip gloss and put on another coat. Outside her window, the landscape was dull brown, bare trees, dusty light, wind sending a piece of newspaper into an airborne dance and whipping up the edges of a black garbage bag someone had dropped in the middle of the road. There was always trash. The traffic came in spurts, ebbing and flowing with the change of the light three blocks away. If it got much colder, Josh wouldn’t show.
“I’m going,” she called to Calvin and went out the front door. In the street the wind shifted and the black garbage bag bumped and jiggled as if its contents had a mind of their own. She should go get it, stuff it into their own trash. The neighborhood was going down, Josh said.
The bag sashayed into the center of the road, restless with the wind. Not even half full. Who would put so little trash into such a big bag and dump it into the street?
As soon as she asked, she knew.
Heart pounding, she swallowed hard and stepped into the road to get it. A wave of traffic bore down and forced her back onto the curb. There was a crunch, or else in the whir of motors she imagined it. When the cars had passed, the bag was flat and silent, motionless with the vacuum of small, broken lives. She wasn’t going to look. Calvin stared out from the big kitchen window, an odd, mirthless grin on his face.
She had the first inkling then that what it would come down to was caring too much in the wrong places. Letting whatever mattered be crushed to sorrow in the hands of beautiful, brutal men.
Just an inkling. A gust of wind.
She headed toward the playground. Brushed a fist across her face to wipe away the tears, careful not to smear the lip gloss. She would do whatever Josh asked.
The idea came to him, years later, while he was getting coffee at the convenience store. He’d seen a video that showed exactly how it was done — though that probably hadn’t been the intention. He was sixteen, newly adult-looking, and though he didn’t usually drink coffee, it seemed the right thing just then, an adult drink to suit his adult stature. He chose a 16-ounce cup from the stack of different sizes and poured from a fresh pot of regular. Pleased at the steadiness of his hands, he reached for one of the cartons of milk in the insulated section of the coffee bar, added a little to his cup, stirred. His plan grew and freshened as he worked. His heart beat faster. The place was empty except for the clerk at the cash register. He rejected the stack of domed tops and took one of the flat white ones, which he set atop the drink loosely but neatly, so no one could tell it wasn’t secure. It was winter, probably twenty degrees outside. He pulled his scarf up so it hid most of his too-pretty face.
The clerk looked bored, a middle-aged woman wearing a knit cap against the cold. “Help you?”
“Just this.” His voice deep now, a man’s voice, and his surprising new height.
She rang up the sale. The register drawer slid open. In a single deft movement he jerked the cup, splashed the coffee in her face, grabbed the bills, and was gone.
What he remembered was her scream — high and astonished, then blackened with pain. Later on the news they’d say she had second-degree burns. It could have been worse.
All day he revisited the scream. He went over the events of the morning until he wore the edge off of them, wore them down to a nub. Not his most successful effort. He pushed back four years to the sight of a half-full garbage bag in the middle of the street, his breath caught in his chest, the three kittens he’d placed in the bag mewing and confused in the darkness — and then the wave of cars, the bag and its contents flattened under their wheels, the litter rendered forever silent while the mother cat inside the house still wandered from room to room, making that odd sound, mrrr, mrrr, mrrr, calling them to her side.
He recalled his sister, the only witness, realizing what had happened after it was too late. The look on her face. Her silence. His abiding pleasure.
Next time, he’d choose a store with hotter coffee. A younger, prettier clerk.
|© Ellyn Bache, 2015