The water trickled through the gutter, gushing from the downspout in sudden spurts. I tiptoed over the muddy ground in my galoshes, cringing when the toe of my shoe sunk in an especially sticky place. Rain splattered the earth around me, taking my blonde hair from light to dark in a matter of seconds. It danced across my cheekbones, over my chapped lips. Mom rapped on the window that faced the backyard, and I spun around.
“Nelly,” She mouthed, like maybe I’d forgotten.
I gave her a thumbs up and went back to my searching, being mindful of the occasional flower, although the rain would probably kill them. Already they looked heavy with burden. I found it ironic that what kept a plant’s life also had the power to end it. Then again, wasn’t that the same with everything? Too much is bad. Too little is bad.
But I didn’t have time to mull over that. Nelly was missing. Again. I sighed.
“Neeeeeelly!” I crooned, cupping my hands over my mouth. “Neeeeeelly!”
My cat, in his usual fashion, didn’t respond. I dropped my arms to my sides in defeat. It was far too mucky to be picking around in the mud looking for him. I turned around and shook my head at mom. Her mouth turned down in an unflattering frown, accentuating the wrinkles near her eyes.
A black bird sailed overhead, wings flapping furiously, and the name for such lines came to me. Crow’s feet. I and tightened the strings of my hoodie, so only my nose and eyes peeked out. My next call for Nelly was muffled. Stupid cat and his stupid tendency to shoot outside when the door was opened.
“Fine!” I hissed, surrendering myself to his inevitable fate. “Get hit by a car—it’s not my problem!” Only it was, because Nelly was mom’s favorite, and mom was mine, and he was inevitably mine as well. If he died, mom would mope for days. I just wondered why she couldn’t get her butt out here and search.
More rapping on the window. I whirled around, exasperated, but my shoe caught in the suction-y ground beneath and I fell to my knees. I caught myself and my hands sunk into the glop that had previously been far less intimidating (and messy) dirt.
“I see Nelly!” Mom shouted through the window, pointing.
My shoulders drooped as I shoved myself to my feet. An attempt to wipe mud from my face with the back of my hand only served to smear it. I followed her outstretched finger and finally saw the beast, hunkered beside our grill. A name for the likes of him, interchangeable with cat, popped into my head. I swallowed my bitterness and marched toward him. But perhaps my steps were too intimidating, because he shot off like a bullet. Toward the fence, up the fence, over the fence, gone.
Mom slapped a hand to her mouth in horror. She disappeared from the window and came tearing outside, outfitted in her bathrobe and slippers, hollering for Nelly like a wild banshee. I watched her go, feeling trickles of cold disappointment course through me. She didn’t care that I’d dirtied myself in an endless search for the dumb cat, or that my teeth were chattering and the rain was slowly freezing to hail around me.
All she cared about was Nelly.
“He’s gone,” She announced, slinking through the door in defeat.
I dropped two peppermint teabags into hot cups of water. “He’ll be back.”
“He won’t.” She shrugged off her waterlogged robe and let it drop to the floor. The laminate floor. I went for paper towels and cleaned up her mess.
She watched me with crossed, judgemental arms. “You let him go?”
“Really?” I scrunched up the soggy bunch of paper towels. “I’m not the one who let him escape.”
“Then how’d he get out?”
“He was clawing at the door.” Mom ran a hand through her stringy hair in exasperation. “I let him out.”
“You let. Him. Out.”
“I thought he would stay somewhere in the vicinity of the yard but he disappeared.”
“It’s not my faul—”
“You let him go!” She screeched. I closed my mouth and trashed the paper towels.
For a moment, all was quiet. She sniffed and wiped tears from her eyes.
“I know it’s not your fault, Del,” She conceded at last. “I just need someone to blame besides myself.”
And that was supposed to make me feel better? She needed to work on her interpersonal skills.
“Whatever,” I said, deciding to let the matter go. “Do you want tea?”
She nodded mutely.
I gave her rain-splattered pajamas a doubtful glance. “You might want to change.” I already had, and taken a shower, while she was out there chasing him.
“I’m good. I need to stay here in case he comes around.”
I sighed and poured a splash of milk into her cup, handing it over. She asked for honey. In squirted a golden stream, ever-obliging.
“Thanks,” She whispered, accepting the cup. She cradled it in her hands, breathing in minty steam. I sipped at my drink. It was already cold.
“Can we turn the heat up?”
“It’s March; absolutely not.”
“But it’s freezing.”
“Put on a sweater.”
“It needs to be warm for Nelly when he comes back.”
She considered this. “All right, then. But just until he’s back. Then we’ll shut it off.”
I hurried over to the thermostat and cranked it up to seventy, shielding it with my body so she wouldn’t see how high I went.
“Do you have homework?” She asked as I walked back to the couch.
“Already did it.”
“It’s Sunday. I did mine Friday night.”
“I never did my homework as good as you.”
I shrugged, unsure of how to respond.
She bit her upper lip. “Did your dad call while I was asleep?”
“Yeah. He’s staying late tonight.”
“Good. He needs the work.”
“I guess so.”
I wondered what had happened to the weekends when we’d go off on family picnics after Sunday church. Back then, our life had been similar to a TV movie—all-perfect, void of blemishes. But not anymore. Now mom was unemployed and she slept a lot. Dad was working all the time. And I was left to my own devices. Meals, transportation, school; all of it was mine and solely mine to worry about.
Sometimes I yearned for a break.
Mom craned her neck to peer out the window. “Do you think Nelly’s back yet?”
I shook my head. “He probably won’t be for a few hours. It’s cold outside.”
Mom reached for the remote, then thought better of it. “I’m tired. Can you keep an eye out?”
I nodded and ducked my head. Mom stood and swept out of the room, up the stairs.
I looked at the clock. It was eleven a.m.
And she’d been up less than an hour.
Dad got home late that night, but I’d forgotten dinner, so we ended up eating together. Chicken pot pie, right from the box. We both had more pudge than usual at our waistlines. Mom was the opposite—thin and gangly, not warm and huggable like before.
“When are you going to the store?” I asked, picking at the crust.
Dad took a steaming bite, then cursed. “Ouch!”
He nodded, reaching for his glass of water.
“The store?” I reminded him, when he didn’t answer.
“Oh, right. Well, I’ve got to be in early tomorrow, Del. So probably not until Tuesday.”
“Can’t I drive?”
“But I’m sixteen. I have a permit.”
“And you need a parent to go with you. So no.”
“Maybe I can convince mom.”
“Del.” He looked at me. His balding head shone under the golden dining room lights. “We both know that’s not going to happen. It’d be a miracle if you can get her to leave the house.”
“Well, Nel went missing. So maybe I can take her on a search.”
“That’s not a good idea, sweetheart. She’ll get all worked up.”
Frankly, I was tired of tiptoeing around mom. “I don’t care.”
“Well, you should,” He snapped. “She’s your mother. Show some decency.”
I stabbed at a piece of chicken. “I have. I’ve shown plenty of decency. But you’re never here. You didn’t have to go out in the rain trying to capture that stupid cat today.”
He studied me. “That’s because I was working.”
“Maybe you shouldn’t so much.”
“And that’s unrealistic. We need all the money we can get.”
“No it’s not; this house is too big anyway. We can downsize.”
“Your mother loves this house.”
“All she does is lay in her room!”
“She’s going through a hard time. You need to be understanding.”
I dropped my fork with a clatter. “So do you.”
He rubbed at the place between his eyes. “I have a headache. Let’s not do this now.”
I took him in—his sallow skin and taunt neck, graying hair. Stress couldn’t fail to be any more apparent on a person. I picked my fork back up, surrendering. He exhaled in obvious relief.
“We’ll talk about this later, Del,” He promised, scooting his chair back from the table. I watched blindly as he scooped up the paper container his pot pie had come in and hurried to the kitchen to throw it away.
After a while, I followed with mine.
“Is Nelly here?”
Mom appeared on the staircase right as I was sliding a sheet of homework into my bookbag.
“Good morning to you, too.”
She lowered her eyes. “Morning. Is Nelly here?”
I yanked on the zipper. “Nope.”
“Do you think—” She tapped her fingers on the wood banister. “Should we go looking for him, today?”
“No. He’ll come back.”
“I don’t know.”
“He will,” I assured her, swinging my backpack up on one shoulder. Personally, I didn’t care if I ever saw Nelly again. I’d come to resent the cat—and if I was being honest, it was because he stole mom’s attention away from me.
But I wasn’t into all that psychobabble, so my reasoning was allergies.
She twiddled her thumbs nervously. “But you’ll come with me, right? If I decide to go?”
I started toward the door, then went back for a donut. “If you’ll go grocery shopping with me.”
She tugged on the hem of her nightgown. “I dunno.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Then I won’t go.”
She went abruptly sour. “Then don’t, Delilah. I don’t feel like grocery shopping.”
Great. The full, unabbreviated name had emerged. She was angry.
“Maybe I will,” I mumbled, unlocking the front door.
“I need you to come.”
The corners of my lips quirked up. She needed me?
“You have a good eye,” She continued, hesitantly, like she could read my mind. “You might spot him.”
Whoosh, went the smile. Gone in an instant. I pulled open the door. There was an unpleasant banging as it jerked out of my hand. I’d forgotten to undo the chain latch.
“See you,” I said, unhooking it.
I made sure to slam the door on my way out.
Lexi bombarded me at school. We were on-again, off-again friends. She made those decisions. Apparently, today we were on. Greeeat. I forced a hello between my teeth.
“Del, hey! You look cute,” She said, latching onto my arm.
I blinked. “Thanks?”
She laughed at my question-answer. “You do. Be glad. Because guess what?”
I waited for her to lead me down to our lockers, which were only a few feet away from each other. She did, pulling me to hers. I then responded with the necessary, “What?”
“Reid says he likes you,” She confided, in a hushed whisper.
I turned toward her locker, trying to act casual. “He does?”
“How do you know?”
“Because he just as well told me.”
“How? Did he talk to you?”
Her smile widened. “I overheard him telling Chris he liked Delilah.”
“But I go by Del here.”
“Not exactly. Just with your friends.”
“With everybody.” I closed her locker for her. “And isn’t there another Delilah?”
“Yeah, but...” Lexi wrinkled her nose. “She’s a junior. So out of his league.”
“And I’m not?” I moved to my locker, putting in the combination.
“Uh, nada. No one’s too cool for Reid.”
“But you just said—”
“In our freshman class. No junior in her right mind would go for a freshman. That requires very low self-esteem.” Lexi gave me a look like, Duh, are you stupid?, and turned away. “Gotta run.”
I stuck my tongue out at her behind her back.
I wasn’t the stupid one, obviously.
But everyone else seemed to be.
Mom was pacing the floor when I walked in that afternoon.
“He still hasn’t showed up!” She exclaimed.
I leaned against the wall. “You want to go?”
She bit her lip, nodded.
“But we go to the grocery.”
She hesitated. Visibly. I could see her body tense. Since losing her job, mom hadn’t been out much. It was almost like she feared people.
She sure loved cats.
Finally, mom shook her head. It was so slight, it was almost like a twitch.
I was warring within, too. She wasn’t going to the grocery. I so didn’t want to help look for Nelly.
My own head twitched as well.
We got Nelly when I was twelve. Back then, he’d been mine. Charles had just died—our gorgeous tomcat, with thick brown fur and white spotting—and I was heartbroken.
“We’re going to take a vacation from moping today,” Mom announced, snatching her car keys from the basket she hung on the door.
I buried my face in a couch pillow and muted Spongebob. “Where? The Bahamas?”
She snorted. “We’re not quite that rich, yet.”
“Then where? Lexi’s going to the Bahamas.”
“Good for her. But we’re not.”
I shook my head, but the pillow kept it from being much more than rubbing. “Not interested.”
“Oh, come on.” She walked over and tweaked the back of my red converse. “It’ll be fun.”
“Can I have a hint?”
“No-can-do. It has to be a complete surprise.”
“You bet. A big one.”
I considered this. My prepubescent mind still counted surprises as good things (see: losing job, mom’s sudden obsession with cat), and this seemed promising enough.
Besides, who knew when another good surprise would come along?
“Okay,” I relented, standing. “I’ll come.”
Mom tried to hide her happiness. She grabbed my hand. “Let’s go.”
We drove out to the country, where grass became brittle cornfields and the sun shone endlessly hot. In town, nestled in our house beneath many trees, it was a cool seventy-two. Here...
I hopped out of the car and squinted at the house before us. It was white, rundown; the endearing type you saw on the covers of home renovation magazines that were cute enough to bait you in.
And, I realized, as we knocked on the front door and were welcomed inside—the kind you immediately hated after buying because it contained no air conditioning and you didn’t have the cash to buy one.
The atmosphere inside was stifling. I tried to breathe. The girl who had let us in looked classically farm-ish. Her brown hair was swept back in a braid, and there was a peppering of freckles across her nose. The only thing jarring about her were her clothes—a low-cut, lavender tank top and denim skinny jeans.
“Momma!” She yelled. “Somebody’s here!”
My own mother put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed.
The stairs creaked as a woman walked down them. She looked a lot like her teenage daughter; just a whole lot older. Some of her hairs were gray.
“Hi,” She said, then hissed in her daughter’s ear, “Why’d you let them in without asking?”
“They ain’t selling nothing,” The daughter replied, casting us a nervous glance.
“But what if they were here to steal you?”
“They ain’t here to steal me!” The girl insisted. “I bet they’re here about Millie.”
“Oh.” Understanding dawned in the woman’s eyes. “Is that what you’re here for?”
Mom nodded wordlessly.
“Why didn’t you just say so? Follow me, then.”
We were let down a stifling hallway and into an even more stifling kitchen. Now I understood the girl’s reason for the tanktop. Just not the jeans.
“There you go,” The woman said, gesturing vaguely to a corner. “He’s an ornery one. Just warning ya.”
My eyes immediately zeroed in on a small, pale yellow kitchen. He blinked up at us and mewed.
“Oh my gosh!” I exclaimed, rushing forward. I took the scrawny thing in my arms.
“He’s the only one of his litter that survived,” The woman explained. “And his mama died. Got killed on the road up there. We just don’t have the heart to keep him.”
The girl sniffed. “He reminds us too much of her.”
I kissed his furry head and looked at mom with hope in my eyes. “This is the surprise?”
She nodded. “Surprise!” Then, “Do you want him?”
“Yes!” I gathered the kitten in my arms. “Yes, please!”
Mom dug into her wallet. “What do we owe you?”
The woman told her, and mom paid the ten dollars. We walked back out to the car with our new cat. His soft meows continued as I set him on my lap and buckled my seatbelt.
“What should we name him?” I asked on our drive back, stroking his golden fur.
Mom smiled. “Nellie?”
“Nelly. I like it. How’s it spelled?”
“Oh.” I frowned. “Can we change the end to a Y?”
Mom laughed and nodded. “Sure, Del. Whatever you want.”
I sat up in my room until nightfall, listening as mom left and came back and dad arrived and the microwave dinged with dinner and they exchanged cold pleasantries and mom came up and dad turned on the TV. It was all so frustratingly routine I wanted to bash my head against the wall and scream at the both of them.
What happened to the passion? I would yell. You used to kiss each other every day. And I know I thought it was gross at the time, but at least I knew you still cared.
I didn’t know, anymore. I’d come to questioning whether Dad was even at work on Friday and Saturday nights when he said he had to stay late. Didn’t guys stray from their marriage when their wives went berserk? I’d heard it before somewhere; I was certain.
But honestly, I didn’t want to trouble myself thinking about it.
Around nine I left the confines of my bedroom and ducked into the master briefly to ask mom if she’d found Nelly. Her fetal position beneath the covers was answer enough. I went down and made myself a quesadilla, offering a brief hello to Dad. He said, “Hey,” and then went back to his crime-law show.
I ate my dinner and retired to the computer, searching the internet for job positions. I daydreamed about becoming a journalist and jetting to New York, where I’d live the sophisticated life and spend weekends at art galleries sipping wine and nibbling cheese.
Ah, but that was out. I didn’t like writing.
A chef was a more reasonable consideration, since I enjoyed food so much. Only, I couldn’t cook worth anything and I kind of sucked at it, anyway.
Veterinary, doctorly positions were a strict no-no. I was not fond of blood. Or animals, anymore. Not after my mother had tied herself to one inexplicably, like she was married to it or something.
Her obsession with Nelly had begun as a sort of time-filler, while she job hunted. In her free moments, she’d work on brushing his coat, or tossing some toys around for him. Then that became microwaving salmon and giving him a plateful, which gradually slipped into round-the-clock pampering. I fell under the wayside. I guess because Nelly was easier to deal with.
I, on the other hand, was bringing home C’s on my report card and complaining about my lack of friends.
That had been six months ago. My C’s were A minuses now, but mom didn’t care. It was all the same to her, anymore. And so was not working. Way back when, she’d lived for her job. Her mantra had basically been, “Work hard, and reap the results.” Even though she’d been somewhat absent from my life, her kisses meant something, and so did her hugs. They showed that she cared.
Now all her energy went into Nelly. She had nothing else to fall back on. So the fact that he was gone wasn’t helping much—not like I’d secretly hoped it would. She didn’t know how to live without him.
Tomorrow, I decided. I’d help her look. After school.
Even though, secretly, I also kind of hoped she’d forget about it.
“It’s definitely you,” Lexi announced the next morning.
I glanced at her from the corner of my eye. I was back at my locker, digging through it in search of a spare pencil. Somehow, all mine had disappeared.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
Lexi squeezed my forearm. “Reid. Definitely. Likes you.”
“Whoo.” I faked mock-happiness. “I’m thrilled.”
“You should be. He’s so cute.”
“Maybe you should go after him.” I leaned away from my locker and closed it.
She beamed at me. “But he likes you, silly! You.”
“And I’m not interested.”
She looked at me in disbelief. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Sadly, no. I don’t have the time to worry about it.”
“But—” She blocked me as I tried to maneuver past her. “But you’re never busy! I know!”
“I never said I wasn’t busy. I said I didn’t have the time to worry about it.”
“Why? That’s ridiculous, Del. If you’re shy, then—”
“I’m not shy, okay?” I yelled the words. A few people stared.
“Seriously?” Lexi scoffed in disgust. “You literally do nothing all day. I know. So quit making excuses and being lazy all the time.” She spun on her heel and charged away.
I opened my mouth, but no sound came out.
I got home to find mom waiting for me. Her face stretched with an anxious smile as I followed her out to the car. After walking everywhere, driving was a luxury. I was tempted to ask her to take me to school in the mornings, and even though I knew she probably would, she’d probably also wear her bathrobe out. And that was plain embarrassing.
“So I was thinking we should go grid-by-grid,” Mom said, backing out of the driveway. I hadn’t seen her this animated in a long time. And she was wearing a green fleece jacket and yoga pants—score! She hadn’t worn anything but pajamas in at least a month.
“That sounds like a good idea,” I said noncommittally, staring out the window.
“Yesterday I just kind of wandered around. Wherever he is, it’s probably in some small neighborhood, you know?”
I agreed, mostly out of politeness. Nelly was, by nature, a sweet cat—but a dumb one. Knowing him, he’d be trotting through the busiest parts of town. It’d be a miracle if he wasn’t dead.
Mom didn’t seem bothered by this. In fact, she surprised me by turning down Main Street and heading for the nearest coffee shop.
“We need fuel,” She explained, upon seeing my shocked expression. “I was thinking something sweet.”
I nodded mutely. She went through the drive-thru and ordered two large hot chocolates. A few minutes later and we were on our way, sipping at the tasty drink and blasting music from the radio.
“It’s a nice day, isn’t it?” Mom asked over a thumping bass. I nodded.
She looked a bit disheartened by my response, so I amped it up. “Nicer than it’s been in days. Thanks for the coca.”
“Oh, sure.” She shrugged. “It’s been awhile since we’ve been out like this.”
Try a year. “Yeah. We need to do it more often.”
“Tell you what,” She said, sitting up straighter. “If we find Nelly today, I’ll take you out everyday after school for a week. And we’ll do whatever you want.”
I sat up straighter, too. “Really?”
“It sounds fun, doesn’t it? Maybe we’ll get dinner, after we find him.”
I noticed if had quickly changed to when. I opened my mouth to correct her, then clamped it shut. Far be it from me to rain on mom’s happy parade, after she’d been rid of them for so long.
We coasted through neighborhoods for the next hour, keeping our eyes peeled for Nelly. Occasionally, we’d get out and call his name. Mom would rattle a bag of catnip. Yet...nothing.
She didn’t seem fazed. She just turned up the radio and sang along. I harmonized with her, and she sent a smile my way. I softened. Then I thought that I really didn’t want to find Nelly, because this would end.
Then I thought I did, because we’d go out for a week.
And then I thought—I didn’t know what I wanted. I just missed this. The easiness.
We were cutting back down main street to get to another part of town, shouting the words to a rap song and laughing at ourselves—when I saw it. A little mound of fur, lying golden in the road.
My mouth went dry. I conjured up enough spit to say mom’s name, and she looked over at me, grinning.
“Stop the car,” I croaked. She did.
“What? Is my singing that bad?”
I opened my door and slipped out, clomping across the asphalt toward the mound of fur. Closer, closer. I hated how it was just splayed there, in the middle of the road, a mockery of sorts. Showing weakness.
I reached out to touch the limp body and found it still warm. I peered closely at the face, hoping.
From behind me, Mom let out a strangled cry. I blinked back sudden, unexpected tears and turned around, holding my arms out expectantly. Now. Now she would run to me, and I could comfort her, and we could end this.
But she pushed past me to get to him. Him. That’s what it always came down to.
“Oh, Nelly,” She sobbed, sinking to her knees beside him. “My baby. My poor baby.”
I watched, horrified, as she took the cat into her lap and rocked him back and forth. A car passed us and slowed down, its driver staring quizzically. When he saw the scene, the man behind the wheel shook his head. I gave him my best glare, but he ignored me.
“Nelly,” Mom whispered, smoothing his fur. “My Nelly. Oh, Nelly. Why.” She broke down in sobs, her whole body trembling. I put my hand on her shoulder.
“Mom; we should get out of the road.”
She gasped out a sob. “Why.”
“Mom!” I glanced up as another driver passed, going way out of their way to avoid us. “Get out of the road okay? We’ll bury him at home.”
She looked up at me, hiccuping. Her face was red-streaked and swollen. “Why?”
That’s when I lost it.
“Why?” I said, slowly. “Maybe because you let him outside. All because he wanted to go. And I get it, don’t worry. You didn't want your poor baby to suffer. Well guess what, mom? He’s not suffering anymore! He doesn’t have to suffer your chokehold on him because he’s dead. And who knows? Maybe he purposely ran in front of a car. You’ll never know. But it’s possible—you suffocated him so much, he probably couldn’t take it.”
She gaped at me, horrified. My teeth chattered like they had two days ago, when I was searching for him in the rain. I should have known then how this would end. I should have freaking known.
“Let him go,” I commanded, turning back toward the car. “We need to leave.”
I sat in the passenger seat for a good ten minutes, watching with a clenched jaw as cars skirted past mom. She cradled Nelly in her arms, staring mutely. Finally, she stood and walked back over, opening the back door.
“You drive,” She commanded in a monotone, pointing to the keys, which were still in the ignition.
I listened to her. I don’t know why, but I did.
We held a memorial service. Mom insisted, and Dad complied. He dug the hole, she read a Bible passage. It was like he was a child, or something. I wondered if the loss of me would evoke such a great reaction from her.
As we were walking back into the house, a fresh, mud-caked in the backyard, mom broke down again. Dad was there to catch her, to whisper condolences, to take her upstairs.
I turned my head away, horrible daughter that I was.
For the next week or so, mom and I avoided each other. I walked in the ever-present rain to school, doing my best to stay dry. Lexi decided we were ‘off’, which was a bit of a relief.
I was sitting in the library during lunch on Wednesday, quietly reading, when I felt someone’s presence beside me.
I looked up. Reid Hart hovered by my table, smiling grimly.
“Hi,” I said.
“May I sit?”
I shrugged, going back to my book. “I guess.”
He smoothly slid out the seat and plopped down. From his backpack he pulled a brown paper sack. He took a cookie from the sack and offered me one. I declined.
“You sure?” He asked, taking a bite. “My mom makes them. She owns a bakery.”
I was intrigued. “She does?”
“Yeah.” He smiled and pushed the sack over. “Have one. Seriously.”
I did, biting down. It crumbled in my mouth, delicious and chocolatey. “Thanks.”
“Sure.” He took a second one. We chewed in silence for a few moments. Reid cleared his throat.
“So I heard Lexi’s been telling you that I like you.”
I nearly choked on my cookie. “Um...where’d you hear that?”
He smirked. “I have my sources.”
I smirked back. “She has it in her head that you do. I’m not interested.”
“Nope.” I helped myself to another cookie, trying to play it cool. “Too many things going on right now.”
“Good. Because I have a crush on the other Delilah.”
More choking. “Oh. Okay. Well, that’s good.”
“Yeah?” He peered at me.
I shoved the bag of cookies back to him. “Yeah. Like I said: not interested.”
He got the hint when my eyes flashed down to the page. My heart raced as I tried to get back into reading. The same line jumped out at me, time and time again.
She knew better, and yet she couldn’t stop herself. She loved messing with her.
“Bye, Del,” Reid said, and was gone.
I lowered the book, unable to concentrate.
She loved messing with her.
So maybe it was high time I did so, but I still squeezed the steering wheel hard as I broke the rules and took the car out by myself. If I got pulled over, I was screwed. No license. No future in driving.
I ran through the possible scenarios in my head, keeping my eyes rooted to the road. Despite my obvious concerns (and clammy palms), I made it out there safely.
I knocked on the door, thankful that the day was cool. This time the woman opened it, looking older than before.
“I saw you have a cat,” I said. “For sale?”
She nodded. “Yeah. Sure do. Come on back.”
I followed her through the house, to the living area this time. When I saw him, my face broke into a smile.
“How much?” I asked, digging in my pocket.
She studied me. “This one’s free.”
I paused. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah.” She exhaled, facing the kitten. “I’m sure.”
I’m not sure what made me do it. I drove back home, the kitten kneading my jeans, and mulled it over. Perhaps that line in that book had hit home more than I’d realized.
I did love messing with Mom, in my own twisted way. I guess I figured she deserved it.
But did she—did she, really? It was no secret she was depressed. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that she’d let everything go except for a cat. And now that he was gone, what did she think she had? Nothing?
That wasn’t true. She had Dad, and she had me.
She had a house that she’d used to love.
She still had her friends, buried in some remote part of her heart, waiting to embrace her again.
So, yes, it was her fault.
But, yes, it was mine, too. For not being there. For being unsupportive and not understanding. Losing her job was like losing herself.
I pulled up to the house and saw a flash in the window. Mom opened the front door and peered out, crossing her arms over her chest. Her tense face loosened when she saw me.
“Del!” She called, jogging to the car. I rolled down the window.
“Where were you?” She demanded.
I sighed. “Sorry, mom. I had to—”
“I don’t care. Where were you? I was so worried! I thought you’d run away.”
“Run away?” I laughed at that. “I’m not going to run away.”
“How was I supposed to know? You’ve been so unhappy.”
“And yet you haven’t done anything,” I grumbled.
“You haven’t said anything, mom,” I whispered, a bit hoarsely.
She leaned against the car. “I’m sorry, okay? But from now on, if you’re going out, let me know.”
I looked down. Then up. “I’m sorry,” I blurted. “I mean, I’m sorry, too. About what I said when Nelly died. I know it’s not true, mom. I know he loved you and you loved him and I guess it was hard for me to accept.”
She smiled faintly. “Thank you, Del.”
I waited for her denial, but it didn’t come. She had loved that stupid cat.
And here I was, handing over another.
Her eyes widened as I forked over the kitten. She accepted him with feeble hands, holding him to chest. His gray, black, and tan-striped fur instantly found purchase with her fuzzy robe.
“Del?” She asked, breathlessly. “What’s this?”
I opened my door and stepped out. “A cat. Not exactly a replacement. Just a start-over.”
She smiled at me. “Del. You didn’t have to do that.”
“I know. I wanted to.”
She cradled the kitten under her arm as we walked inside. Then she handed him to me, saying she needed to go shower so we could go to the store and get cat supplies—we’d thrown Nelly’s out.
“You’ll help me pick it out, won’t you?” She asked, hopefully.
I nodded. “Yeah.”
With that decided upon, she loped up the stairs. I heard the shower start.
I prayed this wouldn’t send mom over the edge and cause her to become one of those Crazy Cat Ladies. Then again, maybe it was what she needed.
I was done messing with people. Life was just too precious to waste time doing that.
We drove home that night, new supplies in the back. The cat was fast asleep in my lap. I stroked my hand over his fur, and mom smiled at me.
“He doesn’t have a name,” I said, suddenly.
Mom nodded. “I’ve been thinking about it. I think I have one.”
It was then that I laughed—not because my mother was giving the cat a female name—but because I finally realized she had named all our animals after Little House on the Prairie characters.
She giggled, too, reaching over to pat my knee.
“What’s next?” I asked, pursing my lips. “Nels?”
She shook her head. “Mary, all the way.”
More silence. I fiddled with the radio, then shut it off.
“I’ve been thinking,” She said, turning on her blinker. “There’s someplace we need to go.”
My eyes were alert with interest as we made another turn and drove for a couple of miles. Then another.
“Close your eyes,” Mom commanded, suddenly.
I laughed, but did as I was told.
For the next couple of minutes, I resisted the urge to open them. The car slowed, then stopped. The engine rumbled to a standstill as she took the keys out of the ignition.
“Open,” Mom commanded.
I did, and I smiled.
We were parked in front of the grocery store.