Sophie Henry

Jeremy didn’t want to take Caleb with him, but Kathleen insisted. “I don’t want that cat in my house,” she said.

“I don’t know what you want me to do about that.”

“Take him to get rid of that cat.”

“I’m going to see Edie.”

“Take Caleb with you and get rid of that cat on the way.”

“He’ll kill the mood,” Jeremy protested. “Why’s he talking so funny now?”

“He’s been reading Shakespeare, that’s what his teacher said.”

“Shakespeare?” Jeremy arched his eyebrows. What little kid started talking in the King James?

“Jeremy,” Kathleen said sternly, “you’re stupid. Take Caleb with you. He’s a kid. And be safe, for God’s sake. Are you smoking grass with that girl?”

“No.”

“Don’t you dare get her pregnant.”

“Jesus.”

“I’m serious, Jeremy. You know what’ll happen if you get her pregnant?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Caleb sat in the back of the Yugo that Kathleen and Dave had given Jeremy driving privileges for with the cat in a plastic carrier, cooing softly at it. The kid was a fucking dweeb, and Jeremy had been in homes with worse types, but that didn’t mean he wanted to drive him all over creation with a cat he’d just found behind the shed. But he wanted to see Edie, and if this was the price he had to pay for that, so be it.

“Art now we departing?” Caleb asked softly as Jeremy slid into the driver’s seat. He sounded exactly as he had when Kathleen and Dave had told him the wave pool was closed for renovations for the summer.

“Buckle up.”

“Is it necessity that we doth make rid of him?” Caleb asked as Jeremy started the car.

“You heard Kathleen.”

“He doth not bring any harm to us.”

“She’s a bitch, I know.”

“I do not wish to depart from Friedrich.”

“Friedrich?”

“’Tis his name.”

“Friedrich,” Jeremy repeated. “Kathleen wants us to get rid of him. You know what Dave’ll say if he comes home and sees cat shit everywhere? Not gonna be pretty.”

“He is but a young cat.”

“Look, it still shits, we’re just going to find someone who’ll take him. You know any cat ladies nearby? On the way to Eno?”

“Cat ladies?”

“Forget it. I’ll park at the courts, we can ask around.”

The basketball courts faced the two blocks of houses that comprised the Cheshire township. If there was anyone who would take a cat off their hands, it would be here. Jeremy parked beside a red Mustang. It was a sweet car, black stripe down the hood, shiny rims, muffler gleaming. Jeremy allowed himself to admire it for a few moments before turning his attention to the court, where a handful of guys were playing a pickup game.

“You guys want a cat?” he called.

“A cat?” Jeremy recognized him. They were in the same science class at school. Mark, Matt? What was his name? Martin, he thought. Looking at the others, he realized he knew most of them, too.

“Well, a kitten.”

“My girlfriend likes kittens,” another, Blake, said. He was in science, too.

“Show them the kitten,” Jeremy ordered.

Caleb lifted the carrier with his scrawny arms. Yellow eyes flashed out.

“I can’t see him,” one of the guys complained.

“He’s an ugly little feller,” Martin commented.

“Kittens can’t be ugly,” Jeremy answered, exasperated.

“They can be.”

“Okay, stupid-ass,” Blake snorted.

“So, you want him?” Jeremy asked impatiently. “Think your girlfriend would like a cat?”

“That’s a lot of commitment, dude.”

“You don’t want a pet until you’ve dated a year, at least.”

“What makes him ugly?” Caleb demanded, staring into the carrier.

“His face,” Martin said. “Who wants a cat with a fucking smashed face.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Calicos are where it’s at,” Blake said. “Girls love calicos.”

“Is this your little brother?” one of the guys asked, pointing at Caleb.

“Yeah,” Jeremy said.

“He is not my brethren,” Caleb squeaked, and Jeremy wanted to pummel him. “We only abide together.”

“Whoa Jeremy,” Martin said, “are you gonna let your kid brother shit talk you like that?”

“His brother I am not,” Caleb repeated, firmer this time.

“Listen, if you don’t want the cat, just say so,” Jeremy said to the boys.

 

They rang every doorbell on every house for the two-block stretch of the Cheshire township. Only three people answered. “You do all the talking,” Jeremy said. “Make big eyes at them, people love kids.” He checked his phone. Edie hadn’t texted him.

“Wouldst that thou had a cat?” Caleb earnestly asked an elderly lady as Jeremy held up the carrier. “He is a kitten.”

“Are you sure he’s a he?” the lady asked. “I don’t want a litter of kittens running around here in a few months.”

“He’s definitely a he!” Jeremy reassured her. “Look at him.” He pulled the kitten out of the carrier and cradled it in his elbow. “He’s got a dick, don’t he?”

No one in Cheshire was interested in taking the cat off them. They got back into the Yugo in front of the courts and sat for a moment before Jeremy keyed the ignition. “Why’d you tell those guys I’m not your brother?”

“Wherefore you are not.” Caleb said, the cat a plaintive, fluffy orange ball in his arms.

“Listen, dude, Kathleen and Dave aren’t bad. I could stick around here for a while. Can’t you just play it cool?” He started the car. “Make things easier if you did. Make things easier for yourself, too. We’re going to pick up Edie.”

“Dost Edie liketh cats?”

“I don’t know. Probably.”

Edie lived in a shuttered white farmhouse in Eno, about a fifteen minutes’ drive from Cheshire, on a big plot of land with a sagging barn on one corner. It looked like Ireland, or what Jeremy assumed Ireland must look like. His mother had always wanted to go to Ireland. He parked at the end of her driveway and she took shotgun and kissed him. She wore heavy eyeliner and lipstick stained her crooked teeth and Jeremy didn’t think he had ever seen a prettier thing.

“Why didn’t you text me back?” he asked.

“I didn’t see that you texted,” she answered. “Let’s go to the quarry. Shannon and Frankie are bringing booze.”

“I’ve got the kid with me.”

“He can come,” she said confidently.

“Are you sure?”

“How old is he?”

“I don’t know. Caleb, how old are you?”

“Eight,” he said.

“He can come.”

“Edie, what the hell,” Jeremy protested.

“Oh, come on. I’m sure he’s seen people drink beer before.”

“Don’t tell Kathleen, okay, bud?”

The quarry was nestled in the low foothills of the Ohio Valley, far enough out of the floodplain that it barely mattered, disused and abandoned and now abused by all the teenagers in the county on weekends. It was the best warm-weather party spot in the area, though the police were keen to this fact as well. Jeremy had been once before when the cops busted it and had drunkenly climbed to the bushes fringing the top, a PBR can still foaming in his hand, waiting until their flashlights passed over him before making a dash to hide in the bed of the swim captain’s Chevy pickup, and fallen asleep. The swim captain had dived into the water and treaded in the shadows, ducking underneath the surface when their lights came close until they had left, and then he drove Jeremy home.

Today the top of the quarry was already lined with cars. Jeremy parked the Yugo between a hollowed old station wagon and a red Mustang—that red Mustang, he realized, recognizing the charcoal detailing. Whose was it? It didn’t matter, he decided, they had all acted like Friedrich was a piece of roadkill you would sigh at but not think much more about, even if the eyes were open and forcing eye contact.

“Stay in the car, will you?” Jeremy said, looking in the rearview mirror at Caleb.

“Oh, let him come,” Edie said.

“I can’t show up with him at this thing.”

“I was twelve when I went to my first quarry party.”

“And he’s eight,” Jeremy said, “and he doesn’t want to go.”

“I don’t know why you think you can say that,” she said. “You haven’t even asked him.”

“I’m not asking him because he’s doesn’t want to go and he’s too young to go anyway. Kathleen would skin me.”

“Caleb,” Edie said, turning around, “do you want to come down to the quarry with me?”

“Caleb, you’re not allowed to go.”

“Just cool it,” she said. “I’ll keep an eye on him. What do you want him to do, stay in the car the whole time?”

“You can be a real bitch sometimes.”

She gave him the finger as she slammed the door behind her. In the rearview mirror Caleb fidgeted with his seatbelt before looking straight at the reflection of Jeremy’s face. “May I taketh Friedrich with me?”

“Jesus, sure, do whatever you want.”

The carrier clanked on the door, the cat mewled, the door shut softly. Jeremy was alone. He glared and waved at Edie as she headed down the path to the quarry. He almost hated her. He knew he was going to fight someone before the night was over. His mother used to say he had been born with his fists swinging. He assumed it was true. He couldn’t recall all his fights, but he remembered most of them. Fighting was why he had been shunted from home to home every few months. Last time he had broken a boy’s arm at school. The parents were going to press charges but dropped them once he moved. When he had arrived at Dave and Kathleen’s four months ago, Jada, his social worker, had begged him not to fight. “The Dunhams are really great people, Jeremy,” she’d pleaded, “I promise you, they’re the best in this county. They love their kids like their own.”

He locked the Yugo and, eyeing the area to make sure no one was in the vicinity, held his key like a pencil and dragged it across the Mustang’s passenger door. Gratingly the paint curled off in corkscrews onto the gravel. He hated people who had what he wanted. He straightened and headed down the path to the quarry.

There was a picnic table not far from the water, which was deep and Caribbean and gaping in the almost-June twilight. Every square inch of the table was covered in drinks. Edie was talking to Tara, who was in Jeremy’s personal finance class and who, it was rumored, had driven to Columbus last month with one of her boyfriends to obtain an abortion. Edie told him that Tara lived in the derelict Queen Anne trap house down the road from the elementary school. Tara’s hair was long over her bare shoulders, almost concealing a bruise there, and underneath her foundation he saw that one of her eyes was puffier than the other. She squatted to stand at Caleb’s height.

“His nameth is Friedrich,” Caleb was saying. His blonde hair looked white in the shade, like a small old man. He looked into the carrier and crooned softly. “I don’t wanteth to let him out lest he escapeth.”

“No, that makes a lot of sense,” Tara said, seeming to not be put off at all by his diction. Jeremy felt a strong sense of dislike towards her for proving to be a good person, and he hated himself for the powerful sense of resentment ebbing through him, which, as all jealousies do, gave way to revulsion. He barely knew her outside of class and what Edie had told him, but he knew she was nothing like him even if they both had it bad. Her life was probably just like his, watching her mom smoke meth and fending off the creeps moms always went for, he doubted she was far from being in the system herself, hell, maybe she had been at one point. And yet they were so different. He certainly never slept around to get free weed (he and Edie were dating, so it was different), and he never took a beating without giving one back (he doubted Tara had an ounce of self-preservation instincts), and he would never get an abortion in any hypothetical scenario, he told himself (and he had no reason to doubt the validity of the rumor mill), and yet, how did she talk to Caleb like that? How was he supposed to be like that? Tara just kept smiling at Caleb like it was the one thing she knew how to do right. It was the only thing, Jeremy decided, that was an objective good that she was objectively good at. He could do plenty more than talk to some half-wit freak of a fucking eight-year-old.

“What’s your name?” Tara asked.

“Caleb.”

“Like that Bible song. About Canaan’s land,” Tara mused.

“No,” Caleb said, “after mine own mother’s favorite boyfriend.”

“I’m Tara. After the first housing complex my mom lived in.”

“He’s Jeremy’s brother,” Edie told her.

Jeremy didn’t want to talk to them, but he didn’t want to talk to anyone else here, either. Edie made a show of turning away from him.

“He looks like you, Jeremy,” Tara said. He gave a noncommittal grunt and opened a beer. Yee fucking haw. “Was your hair that light at that age?”

“I don’t know, I don’t bleach it like you.”

“Jesus, Jeremy, will you calm down?” Edie snapped.

“What did I say?”

“Why don’t you take a walk?” she suggested.

“I don’t need to take a walk. I’m cool as a fucking cantaloupe. I don’t know why you have to go around making problems.”

“Me? You’re the one making problems.”

“That’s a hoot and a half.”

“We’re not doing this here, Jeremy,” she said, her lips a hard line against the brim of her cup.

“Oh, and I suppose that’s why you wanted me to bring the kid here?” he demanded. “So we wouldn’t do this here.”

“He’s not doing any harm, no one but Tara’s paid him any attention.”

“You didn’t listen to me. No one ever listens to me,” he said. “No one respects what I have to say.”

“There’s probably a reason for that,” she said snidely.

“What’s that mean?”

“Just take it easy,” Edie said, and without waiting for Jeremy’s still-coagulating reply, headed towards the water. Tara still sat at the table nearby awkwardly.

“I’m sorry,” she blurted, looking anywhere but at him.

“You want a cat?” he asked her. “We’re not supposed to come home with it.”

She smiled sadly. “I’m afraid now’s not a good time.”

“No one wants him,” Jeremy said.

Caleb was sitting on the edge of the water with Friedrich’s carrier, his flimsy limbs silhouetted by the setting sun, which bathed the crater in a reddish light, coated all the cars at the top with rust, set fire to the water. Jeremy watched as Caleb opened the carrier and scooped Friedrich out to hold delicately in his arms. Jeremy remembered holding his own baby sister like that one time. He must have been Caleb’s age. Tara was watching, too, he saw, and she dabbed at her mascara and averted her gaze.

“How old is Caleb?” she asked.

“Eight.”

“I don’t mean to step on toes,” she said, “but is it wise to bring him here?”

He didn’t respond. Caleb brought the kitten back and thrust it into Tara’s arms. It flumped onto her lap. Yellow eyes gleamed out of its pancake-flat face.

“Is he ugly?” Caleb demanded.

“He’s the handsomest kitty I’ve ever seen,” Tara said.

“Those boys hath sayest he is ugly.”

“Which boys?” Tara asked, frowning.

Caleb pointed to the other side of the quarry where Martin and Blake and a few others—Edie among them—were congregating for a drinking game. Martin had slung an arm around Edie’s shoulder, and she was laughing.

“Oh, they love to talk,” Tara said, “but it doesn’t matter.”

Jeremy stood straighter. If Tara wanted to play mother, he could do better. “Hey Martin!” he called. “Marty! Come over here for a sec.”

Martin waved and made his way towards them. “What’s going on?” he slurred.

“I think you owe my brother an apology,” Jeremy said.

“What?” Martin asked dumbly.

Jeremy jerked his head at Caleb. “For what you said about his cat.”

“I’m sorry,” Martin told Caleb. He turned back to Jeremy. “I gotta ask, why’s he talk like that?”

“Kids like Shakespeare.”

“That’s nuts,” Martin said. “Thought he said he wasn’t your brother, too.”

“He is,” Jeremy said, and then he hit him, with all the force behind his elbow and all the anger that had creased between eyebrows over the course of the evening, over the course of his seventeen years. His fist connected with Martin’s nose. Blood confettied across his face, his shirt, Jeremy’s hand. He heard Tara shriek behind him. Jeremy punched him again and he spiraled into the dirt.

“What the fuck, man.”

“Jesus Christ, Jeremy!” Edie screamed.

Jeremy didn’t listen to any of them, they might as well have been radio static during the big game. He stood waiting for Martin to stand, knuckles throbbing. He stared up at Jeremy, confused, face a collage of blood and flesh and somewhat estranged facial features. He stood and lunged for Jeremy. Jeremy hit him squarely in the eye. Martin swung and caught his jaw. Jeremy saw stars and stumbled back. When his vision cleared, he saw Tara swiftly leading Caleb towards the water. She didn’t look back, but Caleb did, his eyes wide as she pulled him away. Pain blossomed in Jeremy’s mouth. He must’ve broken a tooth. Had Caleb ever seen a fight before?

“Jeremy, what is wrong with you?” Edie screamed. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

He ignored her and went for Martin’s legs. They hit the ground with a thud, Jeremy felt the breath leave Martin’s body from the impact. Jeremy raised a fist to hit him but hesitated just long enough for Martin to land a glancing blow to his temple. Jeremy fell back and Martin scrambled to his feet, squatting slightly to anticipate the next hit.

“Are you gonna fight me or not?” Martin demanded. The front of his shirt was stained a dripping red. Jeremy had said those words before, egging on boys twice his size when he was a kid.

Jeremy sprung to his feet and aimed hard. Martin got on the defensive and dodged, but he was slow from the alcohol and previous hits. Jeremy waited for him to make the next move. Martin went in fast—as fast as he could—but Jeremy was stronger, and Martin stumbled back, and he laid into him. If Martin’s nose hadn’t been broken before, it certainly was now. Jeremy relished the cracking noise it made. He was still swinging when someone pulled him off, his hands slick with sweat and running scarlet. His knuckles were busted. Martin groaned and someone ran to help him.

Blake from science class had been the one to stop him. Edie was still screaming. “What is wrong with you!” she cried. Jeremy looked down at Martin. He was busted pretty bad, but nothing that wouldn’t heal in a few weeks. Jeremy had been hurt worse many times before. Jeremy looked to where Caleb stood with Tara, putting the cat back in the carrier, Tara with her back to the fight and Caleb staring straight at him. His face was pale and streaked with dirt and Tara tousled his white hair, and Caleb looked up at her. It was a family matter; he hadn’t lied to Martin. He hated the way he felt seeing Caleb look at her. That was supposed to be him. That sense of separation didn’t vanish even when he remembered that Caleb lived under the same roof as him, ate the same food, was all but his brother.

“Did you key my car?” Blake asked aggressively, releasing him. Jeremy dragged his gaze from Caleb to look at him. “Did you key my car?”

“Jeremy didn’t do that,” Edie said dismissively.

“What if I did?” Jeremy shot back, grinning, his smile sanguine.

Blake swung at Jeremy, but Edie got between them and they faltered.

“Why don’t you just leave, Jeremy?” Edie shouted at him. “No one wants you here like this!”

He turned away from her. “Caleb!” he bellowed, beckoning him, “we’re leaving.”

“Don’t fucking touch my car again!” Blake threatened. “Who raised you to act like that? You’re dead next week at school! You’d better hope insurance covers the scratch on my car!”

The Yugo had never looked more pathetic. The door creaked when he slammed it. Jesus, what had he just done? Would Jada hear about this? In the back, Caleb quietly took Friedrich back out of the carrier and held him close to his chest.

“Nary one did wanteth Friedrich,” he said sadly, stroking his fur, “but I loveth him.”

***

The next morning, Saturday, Kathleen drove them to the animal pound. She pursed her lips at the sight of Jeremy’s bruised knuckles and face but said nothing, but he knew the lecture would come later. Jeremy rode in the back with Caleb, who held Friedrich tight against his chest, warmth emanating through his shirt into the kitten’s spiked fur.

“Dost thou want to pet him?” Caleb asked Jeremy. The corners of Jeremy’s mouth raised slightly, and he touched the cat. It was shaking. Jeremy wondered whether it knew what was happening.

Caleb refused to get out of the car, so Kathleen rolled the back window down and the lady who worked at the shelter came to the car and smiled and tried with gentle hands to prize Friedrich from Caleb’s beartrap grip. The cat let out pitiful meows and his eyes shone big. Caleb cried. Jeremy stared at him, a miniature of himself. He, Jeremy, had never and would never have anyone looking out for him, the same way Caleb might never go another day without being verbally berated for being soft or for tenderly holding a cat. And Friedrich, someday, might find that he himself is a terrible father to kittens, or maybe his offspring would wind up in a bag in a river, or maybe Friedrich would end up on a farm, fat and happy on barn mice, or maybe he would only live another week more, and, unclaimed and alone, be euthanized here. But now, before he left his home in Caleb’s arms to enter this exchange of cages, the cat had never been safer. And maybe the yellow beams of sunlight that flowed unharnessed through Kathleen’s windshield and dimmed through the back into a finite golden point on the horizon would harden, crystalize like sap into amber, briefly, for this moment of safety to be eternal, an object on the shelf that Caleb would be able to pick up one day and know that the safety of this millisecond stood outside of time. Jeremy hoped, anyway, that Caleb could do that.

Jeremy ruffled Caleb’s hair, and that was what he could manage.