That damn cat knew everything. When I got in the door that day, with the letter still in hand, that stupid cat was waiting for me at the top of the stairs.
“Haaaaaaaa.” He drawled out a meow and plodded down on his crotchety legs, as if he were on stilts.
“Hey, Chad,” I answered.
“Haaaaaaa, haaaaaaa.” He let his one-toothed jaw hang open, his tongue flopping around the one fang he had left. “Haaaaaaa.”
“What do you want, bud?” I tucked my shoes away and wandered over to the kitchen. Chad eyeballed me the whole way there. “You’re not hungry,” I said, running a hand through my hair. “I am, but you’re not.”
“Haaaa!” His husky screech echoed around the foyer.
“Shut up, Chad.” I bent to give his mottled fur a scratch. Knots snagged my fingers on the way down his spine. He shivered and hocked phlegm up his throat. “You’re gross, Chad,” I said, hoisting him up in a bundle and rubbing the top of his head.
“Haaarg.” His paw scraped the table. “Myaaaaa.”
“That’s a letter, Chad.” I rolled him up to rest on my shoulder. He was just a cat. How could he know? The paper had unfolded, revealing Carleton’s letterhead. “And it’s not a very nice letter,” I added, clawing it into a ball. “Mum and dad aren’t gonna find out, right?”
Chad snorted and shook like an old Chevrolet stuck in the snow. He flailed, throwing grey fur into my eyes. “Naaaaaar.”
“Okay, okay!” I laughed and plopped him back on the floor. As soon as he was free, he leapt up at the counter, batting his legs on the ledge for traction. He summited the granite after a moment of fury and shambled over to the sink: his watering hole. After pouring some fresh water in, I let Chad be and went upstairs.
Chad shrieked from the kitchen when I slammed my door. I swore and burrowed into my bed, weaving blankets up against the cold. My fists, white-knuckled, clutched a pillow. Carleton was my last shot. “It’s either a master’s or McDonald’s,” my dad always said. He made sure I knew the deal. As long as I was in school, I could live with him. “So hit the books, or hit the streets!” My dad loved cute contrasts like that. I guess he thought that being clever made up for being a dick.
I popped a hand out of my cocoon and tossed the letter at my end-table. A shrill breeze knocked it around, scraping against the oak. Chad howled downstairs. Once I maneuvered around in the blankets to get my phone out, I texted Jenna.
Dani: i didnt get in
It only took her a few minutes to answer—minutes I spent counting the plaster stalactites on the ceiling.
Jenna: Shit. That sucks 😦
Jenna: Wanna get a coffee? I don’t want you going dark and soulless on me
I struggled not to crack a smile. I didn’t want to be there when my dad got home, anyway.
* * *
Jenna bought me a bagel, which made things a bit better. Watching people cycle in and out of Tim’s felt more normal—and the coffee helped, too. I avoided Jenna’s eyes and focused on people-watching. My fingers padded at my cup, slipping at the edges of the cardboard sleeve, pulling at it until it frayed at the seams.
“Any ideas?” Jenna said. She’d ventured a few words since we sat down, but I must have tuned them all out.
“Not really.” I put my cup down and picked at the sleeve. “I mean, even if my dad doesn’t find out. What am I going to do? Pretend to be at school all day?”
My friend shrugged and scooted the half-eaten bagel closer to me. “Well,” she began, wiping butter off a napkin, “could you take part-time classes, or something? Would that count?”
I squinted. “Considering he doesn’t believe in part-time jobs, I don’t think he’d approve.” With a chuckle, I put on a husky voice and cartoon grimace. “Working half the time means my foot up your ass the other half!”
Jenna smiled, her dimples vibrating as she laughed. “I guess standing up to him isn’t really an option, huh?”
“You know what he said last time I tried to reason with him?” I sat up straight and crossed my arms so tight I could choke myself. “Danielle,” I said, mimicking my old man’s smoker’s voice, “have you ever killed a man?”
Jenna snorted and widened her eyes. “God.” She swished her dark hair over an ear. “Are you sure you’re not adopted?”
“I wish.” I smiled at my friend and finally moved in on my bagel again. Before I could finish, though, my phone rattled from my pocket. My grin died when I checked the text.
Dad: danielle were r u pls come home now
My bagel threatened to hurl itself back up. “Shit,” I said, covering my mouth. “I have to go.”
* * *
My dad towered over the foyer like an evil lighthouse, reflecting sunbeams with his mirror of baldness. “Danielle,” he intoned, voice scratching.
“Hey, dad.” I knelt to slip off my shoes and place them in their exact spot on the rack. “Sorry. I was out with Jenna.”
“Come in here.” He turned and lumbered into the kitchen, tobacco smoke drifting in his wake.
I followed with tense, shaking hands. “Yes?”
He smacked his lips around his cigar and tucked it between his teeth. “The cat brought this down,” he said, pointing at a scrap of paper on the table. Carleton’s letterhead blazed across the top, above the saliva stains and shredded edges.
I sank my teeth into my bottom lip. “I—” The words caught, so I cleared my throat. “I was going to tell you.” I sniffed. “As soon as I got home.”
He raised an eyebrow and took the cigar out of his mouth. “Danielle.” His yellow teeth came out in a grin. “I’m very proud of you.”
“What?” I blurted it out before I could help it.
“Carleton is a good school,” he said, popping the cigar back in. “And I’m proud of you for making it in.”
I glanced at the letter scrap. The piece on the table only got as far as “Dear Danielle”—the rest had been torn up by the cat. “Ah—” I raised an eyebrow and blinked a few times. “Thank you?”
“Listen.” He landed a hand on my shoulder. “I’m going out, and I’m going to get you something as a reward. Make sure you’re here when I get back.”
I gulped and stared as he trudged to the door, scuffed on his shoes, and went on his way. “Shit,” I said, putting a hand into my hair. “What the hell?”
The cat glowered from the top of the stairs. I met his eyes, and he gave another hoarse whine. He cocked his head to the side and flashed his one fang at me. A pile of torn paper rested under his paws.
My breath drained out as I met his glare. I covered my face and sighed. “Fuck you, Chad.”