It took Chloe a second to notice the woman with the bundle. If she hadn’t been stuck in traffic she might not have seen anything at all.
She was driving her father’s car back from the airport, glad to finally get a moment alone. She loved her father, she’d swear to G...she’d swear she did, but she was exhausted after being around him all week. The world had gone insane, and there he was, with his weird new religion, acting like he had all the answers. Sometimes she just wanted to grab him and scream, “Your God stole Raymie! He stole Mom! Why worship that?”
But with Mom and Raymie gone, Dad was all she had left. So she put up with him; she had to. And it was easier to offer to drive his car than explain how his lectures on religion (and constant meaningful looks) were driving her up the wall.
She was idling at a stop light when the woman walked past. For few seconds, Chloe didn’t notice anything strange. The woman looked fairly normal, for the most part, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans, a bag slung over one shoulder, and a rolled-up blanket in her arms. And Chloe had seen women clutching blanket-wrapped bundles like that hundreds of times. It wouldn’t have meant much last week.
By the time Chloe’s brain caught up with her eyes, and she turned to watch, someone on the sidewalk had grabbed the woman and started screaming. It was another woman; middle-aged, wearing a gray overcoat. Chloe couldn’t hear much at first, but when she rolled down the passenger window, she caught snatches of what the older woman shouted.
“Disgusting...shouldn’t...in public...mad bi...locked up!” Fragments of phrases rang out over the traffic noise. That woman must be screaming at the top of her lungs, Chloe thought. Had she lost her mind?
Chloe couldn’t tear her eyes off that scene, or that one little bundle that couldn’t possibly mean what she thought. There was no way, she knew. Absolutely no way. Not just the one baby, kept like that, and carried so casually down a public street. But just in case (in case this woman had solved it, fixed it somehow and they were all coming back, Raymie and Mom were coming back!) she didn’t dare look away.
“Goddamned loony!” the woman in the gray coat screamed. She tried to take the bundle away. The other woman clutched at it, and they started wrestling at each other, like some mad tug-of-war. A man stepped in, and tried to pull them apart.
The man’s shove sent both women staggering back. The older woman’s arms flew out, smacking the man in the face. The bundle flew out of the younger woman’s arms and landed in the street.
In front of Chloe.
With the blanket unraveled, it was a cat. A little gray cat; dead and horribly stiff. The head was twisted sideways, and the legs splayed out. The fur was coming off in patches.
Chloe wondered if that woman had killed it herself.
Hearing a horn honk behind her, Chloe glanced up. The light was green. She didn’t know how long it had been green. By the chorus of honks, a few seconds at least.
She stepped on the accelerator just as the light turned yellow. She felt her tires roll over a small bump in the road. And behind her, she heard an anguished howl.
She didn’t look back. She didn’t dare look back.
With the rush-hour gridlock, she couldn’t pull over for miles. She had to keep driving with her hands shaking, worried that she might crash. When she finally found a quiet street, she parked and got out of the car.
There was a bit of fur stuck to her front tire, and something wet she didn’t want to look at.
Chloe bent forward, her hands on her knees, fighting back waves of nausea. It was only a dead cat, really. It shouldn’t be that bad.
For the first time, she felt a twinge of envy for her father. It all seemed so much easier for him. He had his God. And she could guess how much value his God would put on a dead cat.
She could do it. Convert. It would be easy. Recite the right prayer. Ask forgiveness for her sins. Every time she’d stayed out drinking, every stolen paperclip, every fib. Every time she’d let some boy get his hand under her shirt. She could pray, and be sorry, and promise God that she’d be a good girl from now on. It would be the easiest thing in the world. And God, who was beginning to look frighteningly real, could be the answer to all her worries.
But she didn’t have any answers for the dead cat. Maybe she should have gotten out of her car and helped the crazy woman. Maybe she should have called someone. Maybe she should have stopped and given the woman back the cat. She should have done something, though. She didn’t know what. Something.
Chloe knew what her father would say. That woman deserved what happened, and worse. Chloe deserved everything that happened, and worse. They were in a fallen world, and the only people who didn’t deserve to suffer like that had been whisked off to Heaven with Mom and Raymie. Right this moment, Chloe wished she could believe something that simple. At least that made some kind of sense.
Chloe straightened up. This was crazy. It was just nerves getting to her. She’d go home and get some rest, maybe call her friends from school to find out if they were okay. She’d call Kim. Poor Kim, who’d gotten into Buddhism in college, came from a family of Southern Baptists. When Chloe had last seen her, she hadn’t managed to contact any relatives at all.
Chloe got back in the car, and took a deep breath. She’d go home, and get a break from this craziness before her father got back with the groceries. Maybe read or watch something about what was going on that wasn’t from Mom’s weird church. Talk to someone who wasn’t trying to save her soul. Just a bit of calm, a brief stretch of something resembling normal, and she’d be able to think.
Just a few hours of calm back home, and it would all look more manageable. She might even be able to cope.
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