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Summer Stories: ‘Hope’ by Dan Gemeinhart

Aug. 23, 2020 Updated Fri., Sept. 25, 2020 at 2:50 p.m.

By Dan Gemeinhart For The Spokesman-Review

As a matter of fact, I never wanted to kill my neighbor’s cat. But sometimes things happen, and sometimes one thing leads to another, and sometimes you’re just kind of swept along in a landslide, and then all of a sudden you’re trying to hide a dead cat. It happens.

It all started like three days ago, when the ash started falling.

I’d just blown up at my mom. The explosion was a long time coming, I guess. Building up inside me, hot. If she coulda seen me, I bet my face woulda been white and splotchy like it gets when I’m mad. My eyes lightning bolts.

But she couldn’t see me, of course. She never can. Not unless they invent a telephone that lets you see who you’re talking to, and that ain’t likely. When she told me she wasn’t coming to see me, again, I just erupted.

“Of course you ain’t!” I shouted. “You never do! You ain’t come to see me since you left!” Which is true, as a matter of fact. She’s always promising to come and visit, but she never does and she never has, not in the three months since she walked out. I just got tired of it, I guess. I yelled some other words that ain’t generally considered polite and then hung up hard enough that my hand kinda hurt.

I ain’t never yelled at Mom before. Never hung up on her, neither. But, heck. Sometimes when something’s pent up for too long, it comes out hot and loud. And then, watch out.

Dad hollered from the bedroom, “Hey! What was that all about? That ain’t no way for a 10-year-old girl to talk!”

“None of your business!” I shouted back. “And as a matter of fact, I’m 11!”

Dad thought about that for a second. I knew he was scowling, like he always does when it’s pointed out that he ain’t that smart, which is pretty often.

“Well,” he said sulkily, “It ain’t no way for any kid to talk.”

I glared at the ashtray, sitting there on the kitchen table next to the phone. I won’t let Dad get rid of it, even though he don’t smoke. Mom’s the smoker, and someday she’s coming back. I made it myself, in school, fired in the kiln and everything. It’s kinda lumpy and wobbly, a crooked circle covered with what’s supposed to be polka dots but really just look like stains. It’s empty now, but before she left it always made me proud to look and see it full of ash and butts. When I think of her, it’s that burnt smell of cigarettes that’s strongest in my mind and the sound of her singing. I hated it back then. But I miss it now.

“You OK?” Dad called. He knew who I’d been talking to.

“Just peachy,” I answered, then slammed out the back door onto our deck. “Deck” is probably a generous term. Our trailer is only a single-wide, but it’s setting at the top of a slope, so Dad and his brothers built a deck off the back of it. It’s pretty close to sturdy. I stomped out and leaned over the rail. Ten feet below was the yard and the round, domed lid of our barbecue. Past that, a bunch of bushes and trees and then the Spokane River, gliding along quiet.

It was so cloudy, it was almost dark, which was weird ’cause it’d been sunny all morning.

“Ten years old,” I muttered, then spit and watched it drop down to the ground.

Dad is a piece of work, and sometimes work is the nicest word I’d use to finish that description. He was too young when they had me, everyone says that. He does his best, everyone says that, too. Maybe it’s just that his best ain’t all that great. But, heck. Maybe him being a dad is like me doing fractions. We gotta get some credit just for showing up.

I hear footsteps creak up behind me and I know it’s dad, showing up.

“She ain’t coming, huh?” he says, and I just spit again. “Maybe she’ll make it next weekend.”

I just snort and rub at my eyes.

“Yeah. Probably not. But you can hope, I guess.”

Hope. Shoot.

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” I say.

“What?”

I shrug.

“It’s something Carole said.” Carole’s our neighbor. She thinks she’s some sort of an artist, but I think she’s some sort of a weirdo. “It’s from a poem, I think. By some lady.”

“Huh,” Dad says, and I agree. Carole said it like it was all meaningful or something, and I kinda smiled but really I was like, I don’t know, that sounds pretty darn vague. Still, the words got kinda stuck inside me.

“Well. Don’t get all crabby about it.” And then he goes back inside. Jesus.

  • He means well, I guess, but I ain’t taking advice from a guy who can finish three cans of Rainier during one episode of “M-A-S-H.”

It seemed like it was getting darker and darker. My eyes were burning.

I looked at the birds sitting in the trees. Mom loved the birds. We got two feeders, nailed to the deck railing, but they were both empty as the ashtray inside. It’s like everywhere I looked, I saw the emptiness Mom left behind.

Then, it started to fall. I blinked, trying to make sense of it. Little floating bits of white and gray. Saw some land on my sleeve. I bent to look, but my breath blew ’em away. More fell, though, and then more.

Soon, it was everywhere. Dad came out with me, and we watched it fall. Ash. Ash, ash, everywhere. We turned on the radio and heard about that volcano, way over there. The birds were still and silent in the trees, the goldfinches flashing bright like gold dust in muddy water.

“We probably shouldn’t be breathing this,” Dad said, but we both still stood there and watched.

“What’ll the birds eat?” I asked.

“Whatever they normally do,” Dad shrugged. “It’s just ash. Their food ain’t going nowhere.”

But I frowned. Looked at the feeders. Empty in a gray world. Why would something pretty as a goldfinch ever come back to an empty feeder?

I went to the garage and I found mom’s big tub of bird seed, and I filled up the feeder.

Mom called again that night. But I wouldn’t talk to her.

School was canceled ’cause of the ash. As a matter of fact, school being canceled ain’t all that fun when you can’t go outside and you ain’t got an Atari. Who’dve thought we’d ever get stuck at home, schools closed, and have to wear a mask to go to the store?

So I spent most of my days watching the birds coming back to the feeder, singing their songs. Puffs of ash when they landed on a branch. We left the ash on the back deck. I didn’t let Dad sweep it off like most people did. I liked how it looked like snow. I could see my footprints from when I refilled the feeders. And the tiny three-toed tracks of the birds where they landed. I could see where things left from and where they came back to. I liked it.

It was on the second day I found the dead goldfinch. Lying on the deck. Bright and still. I thought the ash had killed it, somehow. But then I saw ‘em, over on the stairs leading down to the yard. Paw prints, in the ash. Leading straight over to Carole’s house.

“Ginger,” I hissed, glaring at the prints. Ginger is orange and white, with green eyes and a swishing tail.

The next day, I found two more. A chickadee, black and white and precious, and another goldfinch. The birds were wary now, watching the feeders from the trees but staying away.

When Mom called that night, Dad talked to her for a long time. But I wouldn’t take the phone. I was still red hot.

On the third morning, I found another body, lifeless in the ash. A little white and brown thing, eyes closed.

And then, that afternoon. Slouched at the table. Back door standing open to let in a breeze. Going crazy from being locked all alone for three days. My hurt boiling up inside me. Rumbling. A couple birds were braving the feeders.

Then, Ginger. Creeping up quiet, behind the empty flowerpots. Paws silent on the ash. Eyes electric. I sat up. She got right under the feeder, looking up. I jumped to my feet at the same time she leapt up at the feeder, claws spread wide to snare a thing with feathers.

I didn’t waste any time thinking. My anger exploding out of me. Ginger landed on the deck rail, a goldfinch struggling in her claws. I grabbed that crappy clay ashtray off the table and roared and chucked it through the door, hard as I could.

Ginger flashed her head to me at the last second, ears back. The ashtray thunked off her skull and her body crumpled, limp. She tumbled over the rail and out of sight. The loud, echoing dong of her hitting something.

I stood there, frozen.

“Crap,” I whispered. I waited for the sound of her running away. But there was silence. I tiptoed out and peeked over the deck’s edge.

There was Ginger. Still as a statue. A cloud of ash swirling in the air around her.

They say cats always land on their feet. As a matter of fact, sometimes they land on their back on a barbecue. And stay there, apparently.

I gulped and ran down and approached her slow. But I knew. She wasn’t breathing. And her back wasn’t in the shape you’d hope to see if you were rooting for her to live.

Nine lives my foot. I suppose there were two or three ways Ginger might’ve died in that fall, though, so I guess she’d already spent six or seven by the time she went after that bird.

I sighed, looking at her twisted corpse. It was a heckuva throw, but I wasn’t proud of killing her. Now there’d be an empty dish at Carole’s house, an empty spot on the windowsill. That’s what happens when things blow up, I guess. They leave quiet, and emptiness, and ash.

I buried her out under the trees. Had to carry her down there under my shirt in case Carole was looking. It was gross. She was still warm.

I looked down at the little mound covering her up, down by the water. Thought of the birds, unburied.

“Rest in peace, murderer,” I said.

Back on the deck, I scraped the ash off the slats with my feet, erasing Ginger’s tracks. Refilled the bird feeders. My little eruption had killed. But it had cleared the way. The birds could come back. Maybe that’s also what happens when things blow up. They make room for a return.

I could hear Dad talking inside. On the phone.

“Yeah, they’re saying, like, 50 dead or something. Quite a deal.”

Fifty-one, I thought, counting cats.

“Well, anyway,” he says. “This weekend. You promise? Like, you really promise?”

I hold my breath.

Something flutters in my heart. It’s a new thing.

“OK. I’ll see you then.”

My eyes burn, and it ain’t from the ash. The thing inside me stretches its wings. It’s gold, and fragile, this thing inside me. It’s got feathers, I think.

As a matter of fact, it might be hope.

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