Lindsay and Rebecca, roommates and friends, decided that morning to go running east instead of their usual west, into the outskirts of what they considered their neighborhood. Fitness monitors looped to their wrists, long hair bouncing against their shoulders, they were two neon flags flitting past fading hundred-year-old homes and gray churches whose spires punctured the sky. They dodged around a mother and two children herding a top-heavy cart out of a laundromat. They passed a silent funeral parlor, a bustling barber shop, and numerous miniature grocery stores flashing LOTTO and CIGARETTES. Beneath a faded green awning advertising Tomasz Shoe Repair and Tailor, rusted shutters displayed a hand-lettered sign, Coming Soon: Organic Coffee and Independent Bookseller.
As they ran farther, sweating harder, the sidewalks turned cracked and mossy. Sagging warehouses lined these blocks, with scabby red-painted brick and signs advertising scrap metal recycling or imports of t-shirts and plumbing fixtures. None of the signs displayed telephone area codes or websites. None of the doors were open.
Rebecca took a long breath and asked, “Wasn’t there a big heroin bust around here a couple weeks ago? Helicopters, swat teams, all that?”
“Don’t know – I didn’t hear anything about it.” Lindsay swiveled to see the nearest intersection. “I don’t think I’ve ever been down this street.”
“It was in one of my local blog feeds. You gotta read something besides The New Yorker, you know.”
“I like my attention span, thank you,” said Lindsay as she jabbed Rebecca with a gentle elbow.
On some streets, the old warehouses shouldered against hard-edged condominiums, many not yet finished and growing taller behind protective plywood sheaths. Lindsay and Rebecca stopped beside one of the tallest and looked up at the unmarred glass and reflected sky. Lindsay pointed to the sign advertising Rentals, 1-Year Leases, Roof Deck, and Fitness Center. “This could be our speed – what do you think?”
Rebecca squinted at the sign and smirked. “Even if we could afford it, I’m not ready.” Then she nodded toward the cartoon skulls and genitalia spray-painted on the plywood next to the words GENTRIFICATION IS DEATH and said, “I don’t know if this block is ready, either.”
They ran on. The sun against the pavement made the March afternoon warmer than it was. Melting snow along the curbs unveiled a diverse stew of garbage: gray Christmas trees, single sneakers, paper cups that once held seven-dollar coffee, whole bulbs of garlic, clipped padlocks, and feces in every size.
“We haven’t passed a condo in a while,” said Lindsay, then gulped a heavy breath. “Might be time to head back.”
“Tired already, old lady?” laughed Rebecca as she checked her monitor. “After only a mile and a half?”
“I guess we are a pretty long way from the good food and music and stuff. Or the good cocktails, the gallery, the farmers’ market…” Rebecca gazed back beyond the warehouses toward home, their neighborhood that would let them pretend they were younger than they were for a few more years. “And where’s the subway?”
“That way, I think,” said Lindsay, lifting her chin.
“Huh. Long walk. Yeah, I don’t see us out here. Let’s loop around so we see different streets on the way back.”
After they turned north, the sun warmed their backs and painted sharp outlines on the far sides of trees and street signs. They didn’t see the cat lying in the shadow of a garbage bag until Rebecca almost stepped on its outstretched hind leg. She jumped. “Whoa, a cat!”
Lindsay turned and wiped her face on her sleeve as Rebecca squinted at the cat from several feet away.
“Is it dead?”
“I think so,” said Rebecca, edging closer. “I’m not sure.”
“Be careful, Bec.”
It was a mostly black cat with dirty white feet. Its face was turned toward the street, its cheek rested on one paw, and a fragment of a leaf lay in its fur. It looked like any cat relaxing in the sun. Except it wasn’t in the sun anymore. And it hadn’t reacted to them or moved at all.
Lindsay sniffed and shivered. “Dead cat. Damn. I’ve never seen that before.” She thought of Max, the gray cat of her childhood, and how her mom picked her up from school one afternoon and told her Max got very sick and went to the vet and it was already all over; he was gone.
“Maybe’s it’s still breathing. Wait a sec.” Rebecca took another careful step.
“Stay back, OK? If it’s just hurt, it might scratch you.”
“What if it is hurt? We need to do something.”
Lindsay shrugged, and rubbed her eyes. “What could we do?” She glanced at the cat. “It’s a stray. Look how dirty it is. I just don’t know how we could help. Who to call, how to report it.”
Rebecca almost glared at her, then turned back toward the cat. She circled, then crouched to see its delicate face, the closed eyes and white whiskers. “I – I dunno, I – ”
“Come on, Bec.”
Rebecca looked over her shoulder. “What, do we have somewhere to be?”
“I just – we can’t help. We can’t do anything. Let’s go, OK?” Lindsay looked again at the motionless cat, then turned away and began stretching her legs.
Rebecca stood up and said, “Maybe we can Google the humane society or – or call 311 or something. Or tweet a picture. Something. Do you have your phone on you? I don’t.”
“No, it doesn’t fit in my pocket. You’re usually the one I call anyway,” said Lindsay, and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “Seriously, what are we supposed to do?”
Rebecca watched the cat for another long moment and said, “You’re sure it’s dead.”
“Look at it. It has to be.” A breeze rippled the fur along the cat’s back. “I hate to say it, but it might be for the best. A stray doesn’t have a good life. They don’t belong out here.”
Rebecca blinked hard and mumbled toward the cat, “I’m sorry.” Then she and Lindsay jogged away, quiet, scuffling along the sidewalk. They passed a housing development of identically drab five-story stacks of pitted concrete, with lawns of gravel and flattened weeds between them.
Ten minutes after they left the cat behind them, Lindsay said, “One time back home I was out jogging on the county road near my house, and I saw a squirrel that had been run over. But it wasn’t dead yet. It was twitching, moving its front legs like it was trying to run, but half its body was crushed and stuck to the ground.”
“Christ, I really don’t want to hear about it,” said Rebecca. She stopped running and checked her heart rate. “I’m trying so hard not to think about the goddamn cat. Not to go back. OK?”
After a moment, Lindsay continued, “But see, I had to do something. Like you. It looked awful, so scared and in pain. I think it even looked at me, like – I don’t know.”
Rebecca shook her head and kept punching buttons on her fitness monitor.
Lindsay went on. “I didn’t have a choice. So I tried to think what to do. I couldn’t just stomp on it or something, I couldn’t, not the way it was moving like that.”
Now Rebecca looked up, and said, “I’m serious – stop telling me this.”
“Let me finish. Please. So I looked around for something I could hit it with, hard. But it was just the road and a wet ditch and cornfields. So there I was, in the middle of nowhere, crawling on my knees in the mud and the weeds, no one knew where I was, looking for a big rock or something I could use to end this animal’s suffering. I couldn’t live with the thought of it terrified and dying that way.”
Rebecca drew a deep, shuddering breath. “So…?”
“A big truck came along while I was still in the ditch. It ran right over it, front and back tires. I saw the little body fly up in the air. Dead. I saw it, dead.”
“Linds, God, will you shut it, please!”
Lindsay swallowed and wiped her mouth with her hand. “I’m just trying to explain how much I care about this stuff. I tried like hell to do the right thing for this dying little squirrel. It really bothered me – shocked me. I was maybe sixteen then and I still remember it today.”
“Well, actually, it sounds like you really didn’t have to do the difficult thing at all, did you?” hissed Rebecca, her face sweating and red. “Truck took care of it for you, right?”
“Hey, I – come on. I’m saying I would have. I would have done it – done what was needed. Scared as I was.” Lindsay looked at Rebecca, who didn’t look back. “OK?”
Lindsay started away and then Rebecca said, “So what changed?”
“From then to now. Something changed. Now – ” Rebecca waved along the road in front of them. “Now you just keep running.”
Lindsay stared. “Did – did you just say that?” Rebecca shrugged to her. “Don’t. I mean it, Bec, it isn’t fair. This is different.”
“How is it different?” Rebecca’s voice was high and stifled.
“It’s dead! There’s nothing to do!”
“Is it? Is it dead? You were nowhere near it, but you’re still so sure. So damn sure. You’re never wrong, are you?”
“It’s just another piece of garbage, right? A hassle you don’t need?”
Lindsay wiped her hand across her forehead. “Bec, please… come on… I’m very, very sorry for the cat. I wish we could do something, I wish we could help.” Silence as Rebecca stared motionless at her feet. Lindsay blinked hard, inhaled deeply, and said, “Can we get out of here? OK? My legs are cramping up.”
More quiet seconds passed as their breaths came slower. Then Rebecca said, “You go on. I – I’ll see you later.”
Lindsay opened her mouth to reply, then swallowed instead, and turned and ran. Fast and unsteady.
Rebecca walked back the way they’d come, her eyes watering in the sunlight.
©2018 by Marianne Stokes