The Cat Ears
Bridge started wearing the cat ears in September, on the third Monday of seventh grade.
The cat ears were black, on a black headband. Not exactly the color of her hair, but close. Checking her reflection in the back of her cereal spoon, she thought they looked surprisingly natural.
On the table in front of her was a wrinkled sheet of homework. It wasn’t homework yet, actually. Aside from her name, the paper was blank. She itched to draw a small, round Martian in the upper left-hand corner.
Instead, she put down the spoon, picked up her pen, and wrote:
What is love?
This was her assignment: answer the question “What is love?”
In full sentences.
She looked at the empty blue lines on the page and tried to imagine them full of words.
Love is __________.
Her mom had once told her that love was a kind of music. One day, you could just . . . hear it.
“Was it like that when you met Dad?” Bridge had asked. “Like hearing music for the first time?”
“Oh, I heard the music before that,” her mom had said. “And I danced with a few people before I met Daddy. But when I found him, I knew I had a dance partner for life.”
But Bridge couldn’t write that. And anyway, her mom was a cellist. Everything was about music to her.
Bridge squeezed her eyes closed until she saw glittery things floating in the dark. Then she started writing, quickly.
Love is when you like someone so much that you can’t just call it “like,” so you have to call it “love.”
It was only one sentence, but she was out of time.
Bridge had noticed the cat ears earlier that morning, on the shelf above her desk, where they’d been sitting since the previous Halloween. They felt strange at first, and made the sides of her head throb a tiny bit when she chewed her cereal, but as she walked toward school, the ears became a comforting presence. When she was small, her father would sometimes rest his hand on her head as they went down the street. It was a little bit like that.
Bridge stopped just outside the front doors of her school, slipped her phone out of her pocket, and texted her mom:
XOXO, her mom texted back.
Bridge’s mother was on an Amtrak train, coming home from a performance in Boston with her string quartet. Bridge’s father, who owned a coffee place a few blocks from their apartment, had to be at the store by seven a.m. And her brother, Jamie, left early for high school. His subway ride was almost an hour long.
So there had been no one at home that morning to make her think twice about the cat ears. Not that anyone in her family was the type to try to stop her from wearing them in the first place. And not that she was the type to be stopped.
Tabitha was next to Bridge’s locker, waiting. “Hurry up, the bell’s about to ring.”
“Okay.” Bridge faced her locker and puckered up. “One, two . . .” She leaned in and kissed the skinny metal door.
“Nice one. You can stop doing that anytime, you know.”
Bridge spun her lock and jerked the door open. “Not until the end of the month.” Seventh grade was the year they finally got to have lockers, and Bridge swore she was going to kiss hers every day until the end of September.
“You have ears,” Tab said. “Extra ones, I mean.”
“Yeah.” Bridge put both hands up and touched the rounded tips of her cat ears. “Soft.”
“They’re sweet. You gonna wear them all day?”
“Maybe.” Madame Lawrence might make her take them off, she knew. But Bridge didn’t have French on Mondays.
If she had French on Mondays, life would really be unfair.
The next day she wore them again.
“Un chat!” Madame Lawrence said, pointing as Bridge took her seat at the very back of the room. And Bridge’s head tingled in the way that happens when someone points. But that was all.
By Wednesday, the ears felt like a regular part of her.
You paint your toenails. You don’t steal nail polish, though.
Vinny calls you chicken: all of her polish comes from the six-dollar manicure place. Every month, she puts another bottle in her pocket while the lady is getting the warm towel for her hands. You told her you want to be a lawyer and can’t be stealing stuff. Vinny rolled her eyes. Then Zoe rolled her eyes. Vinny’s eye-rolls are perfect dives, but Zoe always tries too hard. Her lids tremble and her eyeballs look like they might disappear into her head.
Your mother is shouting that it’s time to leave for school. You suck in air and shout back: “Just a minute!” You are not going to school. She doesn’t realize that, of course.
It turns out that, in high school, not painting your toenails is considered disgusting. You blow on your wet toes, little puffs. “So much for the freshman-year perfect-attendance certificate,” you tell yourself.
“What?” Your mother is standing in the doorway looking impatient.
“Nothing,” you say.
She squeaks about your flip-flops, how it’s February, but you tell her it’s fine, it’s not so cold, there’s no gym today, and nobody cares.
Really you are just going to hang out in the park until she leaves for work. Then you will come back home.
Your feet are ice. The flip-flops were a stupid idea--what were you thinking? The playground swings are freezing and your hands ache, but you hold on, walk yourself back a few steps, and let your body fly.
It feels wonderful.
The playground is deserted. It’s too early for little kids to be out, especially in February, and everyone else is where you’re supposed to be: at school. On your way to the park, you had to dodge Bridge Barsamian, struggling with a big cardboard box, those tatty-looking cat ears she’s been wearing since September peeking over the top. You sidestepped into a bodega just in time.
You lean forward and swing back, lean back and swing forward.
Straight ahead of you is the big rock where you played when you were little. There’s a divot in it, a crater where everyone dumped acorns, leaves, grass, those poison red berries if there were any. You poured them from your shirt-hammocks into the crater and poked the mess with sticks. “Dinner!” You’d all sit in a circle, and Vinny would dare everyone to lick their berry-stained fingers. She was always in charge--even then, before you understood it, her beauty was hard to look away from: glossy dark hair and full red lips. Snow White with a tan and a strut.
It’s windy on the little platform at the top of the wooden climbing tower. The short walls are covered with messages scrawled in thick marker, big sloppy hearts and dirty words. When you were small, you would swing yourself up legs-first, but now you have to stick your head through the opening in the floor and then hoist the rest. You certainly have grown, you tell yourself.
You sit on the rough plank floor and wedge your back into the nearest corner, the one that was always yours. You can almost see them, in their places: Vinny to the left, Zoe to the right. They’re not your friends anymore. They’re both other people now. The girls you can see looking back at you are gone. No one talks about these disappearances. Everyone pretends it’s all right.
Remember the time you found a beer bottle up here? It was empty, but the three of you took turns holding it, staggering around and pretending to drink--though never touching it to your lips; that would have been disgusting. You felt almost drunk for real.
Vinny’s father had been there that afternoon, seen you, and demanded that you all come down. He took the empty bottle with one hand and jerked Vinny’s arm with the other, dragging her toward a garbage can. She tried to cover, acting like she was just walking along next to him, double-time.
You check your phone. Your mom was getting into the shower when you left. You wonder if she has left for work.
You can see the sun touching the tops of the buildings across the street, making its way through the neighborhood like someone whose attention you are careful not to attract. It’s still shady in the playground. But aside from the loneliness, and the cold, it’s all exactly the same. If you keep your own body out of sight, you could be nine years old again.
Another Book on Top
When Bridge came back to school in fourth grade, after the accident, Tabitha introduced her to Emily. And then Tab and Emily showed Bridge how they drew little animals on their homework, in the upper left-hand corners of their papers, underneath their names. Tab always drew a funny bird, and Emily always drew a spotted snake.
They said that Bridge should choose an animal to draw in the upper left-hand corners of her homework, and then they would be a club.
Bridge announced that she was allergic to clubs, that she would rather be a set, like in math. Her mother had homeschooled her. Actually, a lot of it had been hospital school.
“A set?” Tab repeated.
“Yes,” Bridge said. “We could be the set of all fourth graders who draw animals on their homework papers.”
That night, Bridge thought about what her animal should be. A cat? A frog? She decided she would draw a Martian, with a circle body, a circle mouth, two feet but no legs, and three eyes.
The next day, she showed her Martian to Tab and Emily, feeling shy. But Tab clapped when she saw it, and Emily said “Awesome!” And then the three of them held up their papers in a kind of circle on the lunch table, so that their animals could see one another.
“Is a Martian an animal, though?” Bridge asked.
“A Martian is a creature,” Tab said. “And so is a snake. And so is a bird.”
And from then on, they were the set of all fourth graders who drew creatures on their homework. More than that, they were friends.
The next year, Bridge, Tab, and Emily were the set of fifth graders who drew creatures on their homework papers, and they drew the same things they had drawn before: bird, snake, and Martian. Their friendship grew stronger, like a rope that thickened little by little. On the Monday after spring vacation, Emily sighed, rested her chin on the lunchroom table, and said, “Can sets have rules?”
“Sure,” Bridge said.
“What rules?” Tab asked, suspicious.
“It’s only one rule,” Em said. “No fighting.”
“No fighting?” Bridge said.
“Yeah, just--no fighting. Okay?”
“But we have to swear on something,” Tab said. She put her second Twinkie in the middle of the table. “Let’s swear on this.”
Em smiled. “The magic Twinkie of no fighting?”
They each ate a third.
When middle school started, they were the set of sixth graders who drew creatures on their homework and did not fight. That was the year Em’s parents got divorced. The rope became even stronger.
In seventh grade, things were different. Not the rope. Other things.
First of all, now Emily had a “body.” Bridge could see this for herself, and Tab’s older sister, Celeste, who was in high school, confirmed it:
“Look at Emily with the curvy new curves!”
It had happened quickly. Bridge heard her mother telling her father that Emily’s “growth spurt” made her think of those silent four-year-olds who suddenly start speaking in full sentences.
Seventh grade had sports teams and foreign languages. Emily turned out to be not only the second-fastest runner in the grade but also one of the best players on the girls’ JV soccer team, and now even the eighth graders said hi to her. And Tab, who had always spoken French at home but almost never raised her hand at school, became kind of a know-it-all. Madame Lawrence, who was very strict, sometimes chatted and laughed with Tab before class. In French.
Bridge was horrible at French.
And then Bridge’s English teacher handed back the first homework assignment of the year. He had circled her three-eyed Martian and written No doodling on homework, please. Next time I will take off points.
When she showed Emily and Tab and asked if anyone had drawn big red circles around their creatures, they looked at each other and admitted that they hadn’t drawn anything on their homework in the first place.
“You guys.” Bridge dropped her arm so that her paper slapped her thigh. “Seriously?”
Emily grabbed Bridge’s hand and said, “We’re still a set. We’re the set of all seventh graders who used to draw stuff on their homework.”
“And who don’t fight,” Tab added. “Don’t forget the Twinkie.”
“Right,” Em said. She looked at Bridge. “Forever.”
“And ever,” Tab said.
But Bridge understood that life didn’t balance anymore. Life was a too-tall stack of books that had started to lean to one side, and each new day was another book on top.
Emily had long legs, and her chest jiggled a little when she moved. She probably jiggled exactly the right amount. And it didn’t slow her down on the soccer field. At all.
“Wow, she just exploded,” Bridge heard someone say after Em scored a goal during the first game of the season. But she wasn’t sure if it was Emily’s speed or her body that was exploding. She and Tab watched the kids running back and forth in the knee-high dust. It was almost October but still summer-hot.
“So what’s with the ears?” Tab asked.
Bridge shrugged. “They’re ears.”
“It’s been a week. How long are you going to wear them?”
“I don’t know.” Bridge could feel Tab studying her, but she didn’t turn her head. “Maybe until it rains?” She touched the cat ears carefully with four fingers. “I don’t want them to get wet.”
“Are you okay?” Tab asked.
“Sure,” Bridge said.
On the last day of September, Bridge kissed her locker for the last time and Emily got a text from a boy. It had not rained. Bridge was still wearing the ears.
The text was from an eighth grader. It said: S’up?
“Wild,” Em said.
“Are you gonna text him back?” Tab asked.
“Maybe,” Emily said.
On the first day of October, Emily got a text from a boy asking for a picture.
“Same boy,” Em said. “That eighth grader. His name is Patrick. Very cute, actually. And he plays soccer.” They were sitting against the fence after Emily’s second win.
“A picture of what?” Tab asked, pulling at the dry grass. She was stirring up dust that made Bridge want to sneeze.
Copyright © 2015 by Rebecca Stead. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.