There was no reason, Edison thought as his face was shoved into the ground, that this day should have been different from any other. The cement sidewalk—he had seen with his own eyes the painstaking efforts that the construction workers had gone through to smooth it out, and yet still it dug into his skin like the ends of a hundred miniscule knives. The stupid optimism that had given him the gall to walk with his head up—just thinking of it now made him want to sink into the ground, and if her hands, with their vulture’s grip on his scalp, pushed hard enough, he might just be able to do it.
Something about that day had been different though. The early morning sun with its soft rays barely warming the lingering night air and the quiet pierced with the trilling of birds had greeted him like a family member, unsettling when it was gone, but unremarkable for its constancy. He had breathed a heavy sigh which billowed before him like a cloud, and he stood in front of his apartment, watching it dissipate into the air. What he had hoped to breathe out with the sigh stayed inside him, an uneasy weight around his middle as he made his way to the bus stop. The 6 AM solitude he had long ceased to enjoy, to even notice, and so he stood there, hand gripping the strap of his bookbag as he searched the street for the oncoming bus.
He hadn’t seen the cat until it was right next to him, slinking like a shadow at the edges of his vision.
Its coat was sleek, pure black, a sheen of light moving up and down its shoulders as it strutted over to him and plopped itself down, facing the street. He leaned back, looking down the sidewalk to see if its owner was coming, but all he saw was an old woman, who passed by them with slow, rickety steps. He turned his gaze back down to the cat, quirking up an eyebrow at it.
Back when he had been wide-eyed and his fear had paled in comparison to his curiosity, he used to chase after strays, but they had all given him disdainful backwards glances before disappearing under cars and into dark alleys. This cat, however, sat still, the tip of its tail flicking back and forth, its slanted eyes, the same hue of budding leaves, trained on the asphalt. It paid him no attention as he leaned forward in his attempt to read its expression, but it was just a cat. The best he could come up with was it was wearing a cat-like expression.
Superstitions of sinister black cats failed to cross his mind, because there was nothing to the cat that made him suspicious. Instead, he hid the smile spreading across his face underneath his hand, wiping it away like a stray mark on a dry-erase board. There was something about another creature choosing him to sit next to that settled in his mind. A spot of warmth he could curl up in.
And he did so now, preferring the unreadable expression of the cat to Mary Grace’s acne-ridden face which split into a wrinkly smile that spread straight from one ear to the other as she produced a sewing needle from the battery compartment of her cellphone.
He strained to watch her from the corner of his eye, not daring to breathe as she grabbed his wrist and jerked his arm up behind him—out of sight, oh god, what was she doing to him? The point of something pressed against the callused skin of his thumb was nothing. It was absolutely nothing, he told himself as he stared at the ground, the fine details of the sand-sized pebbles, anything that could distract him until the needle dug into the outer fold of his skin, angled itself sideways, and slid through the white outer layer of his skin, not deep enough to draw blood, but she wasn’t always accurate with that needle of hers.
They got along fine in the beginning. In a class full of kids, they were assigned to sit next to each other. He thought nothing much of it then, nodding along to every word she whispered to him in between lessons. Her mom was going to let her buy four books from the school magazine today, she would whisper to him with a gleeful tug to the corner of her mouth. The neighbor’s daughter could play piano really well, she would say, and with that, she would playfully wriggle her fingers above his arm for the rest of the math lesson.
And as for herself, she was going to become a doctor someday, she told him once. She was going to need a patient to practice on, she said, that face-splitting grin of hers nothing like a surgeon’s mask. The gang of fifth grade girls she had gathered up—those mindless drones who nodded their heads in unison and stood guard over their secluded corner of the yard—the teacher had laughed and patted their heads when they had proudly proclaimed themselves Mary’s nurses. He himself had laughed along, hiding the tattered edges of his fingers from sight as mortification had filled him over how close he had come to confessing their crimes.
After all, Mary Grace would become a doctor, would be a stunning addition to the medical field, healing a hundred more broken arms than the ones she had given him, stitching together more open wounds than the ones she had opened on his head, giving comfort to more hearts than the one she set racing to a quicker death every day.
And himself? He would be left to stare blankly at test papers marked up with messy strokes of red. The teacher could nudge him as much as she wanted, prod and poke at him for the answers to what he wanted in life, but she would never understand the desperation that drove him to shake his head furiously. There were no answers inside him to voice.
Edison gritted his teeth against the taste of dirt in his mouth, shut his eyes, and thought of a black cat which sat with a dignified figure in the breaking light.
There were no answers inside him, he repeated to himself, at least not yet.
That afternoon, as he walked back from school, the cat fell into step alongside him. With the same pale green eyes, it kept its attention on the path before them. The torn skin of his fingers was itchy against his lips as he raised his hand to wipe the growing smile off his face.