It wasn’t assault, exactly. Or maybe it was. Either way it happened quickly. It stopped. Tree-scales scraped barkily against the cotton of her tee-shirt. The boy was walking away. Willa’s earbuds had fallen out of her ears, dangling over her collarbone. The boy’s figure disappeared, duskily camouflaging into the New Jersey night. Past the green-glowing empanada store and the synagogue where she’d been bat mitzvahed. He’s gone, Willa told herself, but it seemed hazy, baffling. She didn’t know who the he was. She didn’t know if gone was a permanent state of being. She didn’t remember how to propel herself forward. Spidery voices slid into the world from the earbuds. Willa’s body felt thick, cementful.
One and a half blocks from home, she thought, though it was less her home now.
There had been nights when she’d been afraid, but tonight was not one of those.
Willa was late for dinner.
The street was hushed. Shelled insects scurried into the porous earth. The sky, crepuscular and unending. Willa heard squirrels rattling in the branches overhead, the far-off sweeping whirr of an airplane. She could see no one—no silhouette of a boy sneaking into the living room to play video games, no khaki-donning dad rushing to the market to retrieve a head of lettuce. Suburban streets, devoid of eyes, slouching back to status quo. Nothing ever happens here, she’d complained as a teenager, and she believed it.
* * *
At her parents’ house, Willa was greeted by the stale smell of lasagna, old furniture polish from a can. Her mother ate blueberries from a plastic container at their kitchen table, carefully laid upon a square of a paper towel so that no drops of condensation would stain the wood. Twice she refused her mother’s offer of blueberries. Willa opened a sturdily zipped plastic bag full of frozen, fetusy shrimp and filled a pot with water. She squinted into the liquid, waiting for the beads to flicker to the surface. Her heart felt pinprickly.
She kept her arms away from her sides, maintaining space.
Willa remembered that Jews weren’t supposed to eat shellfish because they’re the smallest animals that feel pain. The water boiled, beads of heat and movement. The clumps of crystallized shrimp bodies transformed from gray to pink, unfurling.
“I’m positively engorged,” her mother declared, popping another blueberry in her mouth.
“After dinner, I’m going to head back to the city,” Willa said. If her mother asked why she was leaving instead of staying for the whole weekend, as originally planned, Willa didn’t know if she would lie. I have a lot of homework, she could say. Or.
Her mother did not ask. A sliver of fruitskin swam between her front teeth.
“Don’t forget to say hello to your father,” her mother scolded, standing to take over dinner preparations.
In the living room, Willa’s father had his face nestled in a warm, well-knit afghan. He was lying across the length of the sofa, wiry ankles propped up against the adjacent wall. Willa’s father was perpetually in a state of recovery from a serious back injury. His disks were unsteady, a doctor explained, wiggling his fingers to illustrate the undulating spinal fluid. It seemed like Willa’s father’s vertebrae were performing a well-coordinated baroque dance. Medical emergencies had left him sweet, gracious. Once he’d been the sort of man to hurl an empty soda can out of a moving car rather than deposit it in a recycling bin. No longer.
“Your shrimp smell delicious, Turnip,” he said to Willa. Willa kissed his air-conditioned cheek.
She could never tell him about the boy. She knew, if she did, her father would not understand. His eyes were gooey with morphine. He would not be able to call her Turnip any more. This, more than anything besides the lasting and impervious smell of her childhood home, felt like the truth.
At the dinner table, Willa used her fork to dig into the shrimp’s body. Her mother talked about going on a juice cleanse. “I suppose it’s not exactly juice,” she admitted. “Rice bran, rice syrup, and encapsulated bark enzymes.”
At first, he’d covered her mouth. His skin was salted, firm. The hands of a child straining to catch a tadpole. He pushed her against the birch tree, his arm barring over her neck. Then he’d moved his hand. She hadn’t made any noise. How had he known that she would stay quiet? Willa wondered. Why hadn’t he been afraid?
* * *
Later, on the way back to New York, Willa felt the knot inside her chest loosening. She imagined the tiny, L-shaped tool used to put her bookcase together, bringing her back to equilibrium. One turn counterclockwise at the pho place in Ridgefield Park where she’d once gotten a parking ticket; another as the bus makes the wide, scurving turn at the boastfully-named Dairy King. A gummy, Kalamata-olive taste lingered in her mouth. By the time she arrives at the congested, twinkling Port Authority, Willa no longer has to concentrate on the rhythm of her breathing.
She gave the pruneish, slippered homeless woman in the concrete tunnel between Times Square and Eighth Avenue an extra fifty cents, pressing each coin into her hand fervently. We made it, Willa told the woman with her exaggerated facial expression, the one she reserved for dogs and babies. We’re alive. Everything remains possible. On the subway, Willa watched a young girl in a soccer uniform dangle her infant brother’s head back and forth against the sticky floor—a game. He’s a broom! He is invincible! Overhead, an ad for an introductory philosophy course taunted Willa: WHO DO YOU WISH TO BE?
* * *
She took the N train to Union Square. She took the L train to Williamsburg. She got off and onto the L train three times. Willa felt the bruises forming on her breasts, her rib cage, the pillowy space between her thighs. Or could she be imagining the bruise-forming? It happened. Something happened to me.
* * *
On the train, three girls Willa’s age were going to a party together, each holding a tin-foiled platter of brownies on their American-Appareled laps. Ankle boots and ill-fitting patterned pants. Chin-length haircuts and mascara-coated eyelashes. Entranced, Willa followed them off the train. She followed them into a diner and waited by the gumball machine in the carpeted space between front and middle doors, entranced. The gumballs were stationary, covered in dust. For a moment Willa regretted giving her extra quarters to the homeless woman. She wanted to hold a dusty gumball. Suddenly she had never wanted anything so much in her life, to feel the grime against her skin.
“Excuse me?” a stranger prompted Willa. Let’s move this along, the stranger’s face expressed. She did not have time for yearning. This was a diner; it was inappropriate. Willa mumbled an apology, allowed herself to be swept into the restaurant. Tall columns of yellowly lit cheesecake slices stood on a mirror-covered table. A cash register trilled excitedly; a waitress astutely gathered that Willa was not with the impatient stranger. “One?” she said, nodding, a thick plastic menu in hand, escorting Willa to the nearest, saddest table, only a few feet from the bar.
Willa thought of her mother’s guilt-ridden expression. Engorged, she’d said, leering at the blueberry pile as though it were impious. Maybe what she meant was, if you were smaller, no one would notice you. If she had worked harder—birdish and compact, like the girls on the train. Willa knew that she took up too much space in the world. Not only with her body—she saw bodies all the time that were more expansive, that required special clothing options, sizes involving X’s. But her feelings spilled outwards, puddling like oil underneath a car. “It’s like you’re emotionally immune deficient,” she’d been told. “When I’m around you, everything hurts a little bit extra.”
* * *
When the waitress returned, cloaked in tobacco-scent, Willa ordered French fries and a slice of peach pie. She felt, instantly, that she’d missed something. An important element of her order. Regret rose steamily inside her. She stared at the advertisements on the paper placemat cloaked over the table: confident dermatologists, beekeepers harvesting their own honey. The waitress rushed past Willa with a plate of accordioned French fries; they were not hers.
Across the room, she caught the eye of someone she recognized. Hesper, with her luminous strawberry blonde hair pulled back from her small, rounded face. They were classmates; had participated in sanguine exchanges about the mild weather and Karen Russell. She was wearing a puzzling dress. The top, knitted ivory fabric looped in a kind of cape, swirled over her shoulders and breasts, but with a strip of translucent fabric below her ribs before expanding outwards into a swingy A-line. What does her body even look like? Willa wondered. Is that all one dress, or has she layered different thrift-store purchases atop each other?
Hesper met Willa’s eyes and smiled primly. Waved.
I’m sorry, Willa told Hesper’s face. She was bleary-eyed and staring at a placemat. She hadn’t even done herself the luxury of pretending to read an engrossing book, or scrolling through a Facebook feed of Friday night updates. Willa wished she were holding the dusty gumdrop. She wished she could put her hands somewhere that the boy had not touched.
Hesper approached Willa at the saddest table. Her hands were splattered with freckles, as though she’d stuck her hands in a freckle-machine. What would a freckle-machine look like? Willa imagined the air-making blower at the nail salon, spitting small particles of permanent-caramel onto Hesper’s skin. Hesper smiled crookedly, overbitten. Willa waited for Hesper to ask what she was doing here, in the strange not-quite-Greenpoint pocket of Williamsburg, by herself on Friday night. Instead, Hesper rested her elbows on the table and said, “My sister’s cat just had kittens,” and Willa swelled with gratitude for this easy, though foundationless, familiarity.
“Are they okay?” Willa asked. She thought of the kittens being plummeted by a stream of relentless water in a large, metallic sink. Were they drowning or just taking a very forceful bath?
“What do you mean?” Hesper asked. “They’re adorable.”
“Right,” Willa rushed. “Of course.”
Hesper’s head drooped into her open hand. “We found someone to take each one, except for Tibby. She is still a tiny, homeless animal.”
“Tibby? Like tibula?”
“Tbilisi. Georgia. It’s where our grandfather was from.” Hesper smiled. “Do you usually name your pets after bones?”
“I’ve never had a pet.”
The waitress returned with the fries and pie, each thickly jarred peach slice spectacularly glittering. Willa thought she should say something about Eastern Europe that did not involve Stalin. Probably anything Soviet was a touchy subject. Hesper ordered chicken noodle soup and a bloody mary.
“The president of Estonia went to my high school,” Willa said.
“Estonians are dour,” Hesper said. “And taciturn. Wooden, really.”
“I’ve never met one,” Willa replied. “Is that true?”
“I think that was Calvin Coolidge, actually. Oh, no. Willa?” Hesper said, leaning forward across the table. “Can I tell you something?”
She doesn’t believe me about the Estonian president, Willa thought. It was true. I wouldn’t have said it otherwise. Her eyes feel liquidy, about to spill into something incriminating and vulnerable. “What?”
“I’m substantially high right now. Everything feels so—easy.”
A bashful blush crept over Hesper’s cheeks. Willa felt as light and feathery as if she were the molly-afflicted; she could say anything she liked to Hesper, the guarantee that it would be misty and surreal tomorrow. The bright white lights of the diner suddenly seemed illuminating, cradling boldness. Hesper’s gold necklaces jangled like a holiday as she reached for the fork, capturing a peach slice with a jubilant stab.
“Did you know Hemingway’s estate is crawling with polydactyl kittens?” Willa offered. A french fry burned saltily against the roof of her mouth. Hesper organized her hair into a donut-like bun.
“I hate that story we read for workshop,” Hesper said. “Masculinity 101.”
“They have thumbs,” Willa said. “You can hold their little paws.”
Hesper slurped her soup ravenously.
“I heard Liam tearing Isabel’s story to shreds in the lab,” Willa said.
“It deserved to be shredded,” Hesper said, between noodles. “She used the word electric eight times. I counted. Not everything is electric, Bells. Some things are lackluster and interminable.”
As Hesper continued, Willa felt electrically towards her—the brushing of their bare knees underneath the small table, the warm orb of wanting Hesper’s puffed, silken lips on hers. Hesper moved the peach pie plate closer to her soup and fragrantly tomato-ish drink.
“Sorry to colonize your dessert,” she said.
Willa made a robotic gesture that she hoped conveys generosity. They insulted the work of their classmates: Liam’s blatant misogyny; Elisabeth’s overuse of quilting imagery. Hesper’s laugh was low and melodious.
Their knees knocked fortuitously. Willa couldn’t seem to find a way to broach her gayness into the conversation. If gay was even what she was. Queer was too political; omission and long hair rendered her a straight person. She wanted to avoid the confessional, desperate-for-support tone that so many of these conversations lead towards. If only she had a prop. The gumball—she could roll the gumball at Hesper across the table, skirting around their plates of food and perspiring glasses, and if Hesper rolled it back, she would know.
“Where is the rest of your family from?” Willa asked, leaning forward to retrieve the pie. Hesper hollowed out most of the peach slices, leaving a buttery crust-foundation slumping in the center of a white porcelain plate.
“Pale-skinned places. Ireland, Germany. Wales.” When Hesper said Wales, she made an ocean-wave motion with her non-soup hand and then laughed, embarrassed. Willa fell a little bit in love. “What about you?”
Willa mused. She hadn’t properly thought about a response to this question. “I come exclusively from people that don’t exist anymore. I mean—places,” Willa clarified quickly, as Hesper emitted her alto-toned, harmonious laugh. “Prussia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Soviet Union.”
“People that don’t exist anymore,” Hesper repeated. “I only sleep with ghosts!”
Willa looked into her lap. She thought of the boy’s thumb, digging.
“Ghostgasm,” Hesper continued, buoyant. “Do you want to leave?”
Willa nodded encouragingly.
“Let’s go right now,” Hesper said brightly, uncrinkling two twenty-dollar bills from underneath the cape’s folds. “Don’t forget the crust,” Hesper advised, so Willa broke the remains of the pie into transportable pieces.
* * *
On the train, Willa refrained from asking about logistical considerations. She wanted to appear nonchalant, unconcerned about getting eight hours of sleep and whether it made more sense to transfer to an express train. Hesper leaned close to her on the tiny cold seats, her slender body a forcefield of expectation and knobby joints. Willa tried not to think of the word electricity—the sharp hook of the c, submerged between two prominent I’s. Hesper entwined her fingers with the strands of Willa’s hair, reveling in the intricacies of texture. Willa ballooned with self-consciousness, thinking of adjectives she could use for her curls: fluffy, diffuse. Triangular. Her hair had become awfully triangular.
“Your hair is so frothy,” Hesper said finally. “Like a latte’s milk hat.”
Willa thought: she has to be gay. She has to at least be in the vicinity of gayness.
“Do you want the crust scraps?” Willa asked. Hesper wrangled her fingers away from Willa’s scalp and scooped the bits of pie from Willa’s careful grasp. When their skin touched, Willa’s entire body liquefied, a sloshing outline of a girl, waiting to condense back into herself. Then she did. Then she did, and was looking at Hesper, who was feeling the tulle of her skirt with incredible focus and precision. Like someone on drugs, Willa remembered. She kept forgetting. Willa, too, was partially submerged in a place that was not-here.
“You’re sunburned,” Hesper observed, pushing her thumb into Willa’s arm.
“It’s my natural color,” Willa said apologetically. “Not the sun’s fault.”
She watched the mark of Hesper’s touch disappear and felt the salty taste in her mouth return. A tiny cactus was growing at the base of her throat, itching up to her esophagus. She thought of bruises. She thought of Hesper marveling at the pattern of her bruises in the serene yellow light emitted from a reading lamp.
“Do you want to feel my dress?”
Willa let Hesper guide her hand, warmly, over the fabric pooling over her knees, her hidden thighs and hip flexors and motion-related muscles. The ivory skirt was scratchy, protrusive tulle. The sensation of ballet practice, secondhand prom attire. Willa wondered if she should move her hand away from Hesper’s knees but lingered there. These were her knees. Her fingertip slipped comfortably, serendipitously, into a small cave between Hesper’s kneecap and bone.
Everything feels so easy.
“We fit,” Hesper said, mesmerized, and Willa tried to keep her balance with her other hand, knuckles whitening as she pulled hard on the bottom of the subway seat. It was a miniature miracle. A polyp, if polyps could be engorged with romantic potential. She would not ruin their puzzle-piece quality because of the train’s jostling as they pulled into and from each station. She would conquer the subway’s unsteadiness; she would preserve this, like a fly cushioned beneath layers of amber.
* * *
At the 7th Avenue stop, Willa followed Hesper down a long, hilly corridor free of the typical scraps of Poland Spring labels and discarded Metro-cards. Unblemished advertisements stared at Willa and Hesper from their positions on the station wall. 80 Years of Secrets! exclaimed a poster for Russian vodka. Hesper’s skirt swept baggily across the backs of her knees, occasionally brushing Willa’s leggings. The desire to ask where they were going buzzed inside Willa’s chest like an army of wasps. She had never been to this bloodclot of Brooklyn, though she knew by reputation that it was diffuse, decorated with flea markets and artisanal popsicle stands on Sundays.
Exiting the subway station, Willa stayed quiet, growing increasingly wary of the non-Manhattanness of their surroundings. After they passed a bodega on the corner, with its brightly advertised breakfast specials of the eggy variety, the possibility for commerce disappeared. An occasional sign demarcating an optometrist or acupuncturist’s office aside, there were only houses, the domesticity buzzing humidly between Willa and Hesper’s bodies. Four-story brownstones crowded around wide streets like soldiers. Leaves dripped fattily onto the pavement. They were traversing a seemingly unending number of blocks. Not electric, Willa thought, startling as she mistakenly identified a crumpled black plastic bag as a threat. Interminable.
There was no one else outside. The air smelled of chlorine and azaleas.
Trees stretched upwards into the darkness.
He hadn’t been afraid.
“Do you ever feel like nature’s really dangerous?” Willa asked Hesper.
“I once slept through a huge earthquake,” Hesper said. “Four point six.”
“I meant more like everyday nature,” Willa said, gesturing around them.
“Are you one of those people that’s really into the moon?”
“I’m an Aquarius, but people always say I’m more of a Pisces.”
“It’s like being stuck in an elevator shaft,” Willa explained. “Feeling all these—trees around. Closing in around you.”
She gestured outwards with her hands, like someone demonstrating the girth of a deeply pregnant woman. Hesper was looking at her very intently, even though they were walking next to each other speedily, and Willa felt flattered by her efforts. It was worse than being stuck in an elevator shaft, because then there was a large, clearly designated HELP button. Besides Hesper, they were the only living human beings around. A green water hose coiled like a snake against the side of an adjacent building. Grandly designed churches, stocky mailboxes with their legs low to the ground.
“I can’t understand you,” Hesper lamented. “Oh, no. Is it the drugs?”
Willa felt immensely grateful for the existence of drugs. “Probably.”
“But you’re sad,” Hesper said, dream-voiced.
“Scared,” Willa corrected.
“What would make you less scared?” Hesper said.
“I want to go to Times Square,” Willa said. “I want to be squelched by all those tourists and caricature-makers and places to buy individual slices of red velvet cake.”
Hesper laughed. “Times Square is the worst place in the world. The world!”
Willa thought of being sandwiched among New Yorker-carrying businessmen, the miserable souls hidden by Dora the Explorer and Elmo costumes in the blocked-off street by the TKTS line. Clusters of teenage girls swingsetting between American Eagle and Forever 21. Everyone struggling across midtown, politely ignoring the makeshift entrepreneurs with their burned mix cds and relentless promotion. She thought of all the eyes that would be able to see her. All of the voices that would rise.
Willa watched Hesper slide her finger across the smudged universe of her iPhone screen and type furtively. Of course, Willa thought—she had damaged the affection polyp with her innate, incomprehensible weirdness. It was only a matter of time. But then Hesper passed the phone to Willa with an expansive, dimpled smile. On her screen, the first image of Times Square was garishly pumpkin-colored, golden arches of McDonalds glowing benevolently. Bank of America, Kodak, Toshiba, Toy Story. Smudges of bowling-pin shaped people dashing into a taxi. Pearly, cloudful skies hidden behind towering, safe-guarding skyscrapers.
“You can carry it with you,” Hesper offered.
Willa accepted, her eyes blurring against the colors. Even the photograph was a comfortable sensory overload. Willa stood, keeping the image visible as they walked the next few blocks. She wished she knew Hesper well enough to ask: what are you thinking, underneath all of that ivory fabric and secretive layered hair? Willa cradled the phone in her clammy palm. Lending someone your phone was an act of trust. It said: if my best friend texts me a picture of a watermelon wearing sunglasses, you will see this and it is okay because I would never need to hide my love of accessorized fruits from you. It said: when I am with you, I don’t need to be with anyone else.
* * *
Hesper stopped abruptly in front of a tall brownstone. The steps outside were the color of dried figs. Willa blinked expectantly; this was it, the moment of reveal. She knew it wasn’t Hesper’s apartment; she often cited the L-train as her reason for being two to four minutes late to class, cheeks flushed from running across campus. But still it evaded her. Every four seconds Willa touched the iPhone screen with her fingertips and there it was, comfort in visually arresting shades of dandelion and butternut squash, tall metal flagpoles in the center of the frame. Hesper and Willa trudged hurriedly up the five flights of stairs in the building. Stained rose-colored glass huddled in the corners of each landing. As Hesper dug for her keyring in a buttery leather purse, her elbow touched Willa’s arm. They were careening towards an increase in contact. An attraction, pooling like a blister in a hidden place.
“Are you excited to meet her?” Hesper asked, winded on the landing between the third and fourth flight of stairs. Willa’s knees were mildly, hopefully imperceptibly, shaking as they moved towards the top. It was the type of building where residents kept their well-polished oxfords outside their front doors, perched on sprightly welcome mats.
Willa imagined a guest of honor in a garish, metallic throne. “Of course.”
On the fifth floor, Hesper tried each key on the ring before the door opened. Willa followed her hesitantly down a narrow, pale hallway into a large, wide room. A girl with dark blue, pixie-cut hair and a small gold nosering glittering between her nostrils is crouching in front of a cream-colored mannequin, pinning a hem. She was swarmed by swaths of fabric—an ocean of patterns, obsequiously floral fabric, peach and lilac-colored flowers clustered around leafy spurts of green, splotches of jewel tones; shiny, silver-mirrored faux-chainmail; stiff lavender felt.
It’s her beautiful, talented girlfriend, Willa thought. Making another mystical, strange outfit for Hesper to experience the world in. Her own Technicolor dreamcoat.
The noseringed fabric-wizard said, “Are you really wearing that? It’s hideous.”
“It swishes perfectly,” Hesper said.
“I’m Ada,” said Ada, leaning over her many cloths to shake Willa’s hand. “Sister of this caped creature.”
Willa smiled with her lips tightly pinched together. She felt inordinately creepy for the girlfriend assumption. Ada continued to criticize her own garment on Hesper’s small, clandestine body, and Hesper argued in an escalating, delighted defense, especially of the cape’s wayward strings. Willa averted her eyes from their affection. Even though the relationship had been clarified, she still housed a prickle of competitiveness with Ada, the kind that only children feel when siblings love each other.
Two other mannequins loomed in the corner of the living room against a large, obtrusive sofa. Willa stared at their plastic torsos, swan-like necks. The places where their hands and feet would be. Lumpless hourglasses, as smooth as china. She looked at the things that they were missing and the inside of her throat molted into the stringy unwanted innards of a peach.
“The kitchen’s on the other side of the apartment,” Hesper informed Willa.
Hesper reached for Willa, gripping each of her shoulders with a smooth hand, leading her out of the living room and into the narrow hallway. It was like a kindergarten chain of students, marching out to the playground for recess. At first, the contact between Hesper’s fingertips and Willa’s cotton-covered shoulders was a beguiling jolt. But in the dimness of the corridor, with Hesper’s breath collecting in the hollows of Willa’s ear, the jolt soured into a rolling, unshakeable sensation. The presence of another body, so close to hers—but imperceptible, distanced. Without the ability to see Hesper, the voluminous ivory skirt, the floppy, Thousand-Island colored hair, she could be anyone. She tightened her grasp on Willa’s bones.
“Before you came to the diner,” Willa began, her voice tremulous.
She felt the rays of Hesper smiling, and then the dust that remained post-smile.
Hesper stopped walking towards the kitchen. They stood, motionless, with Hesper’s fingers kneaded into Willa’s shoulders. Willa knew that she should continue, but saying it out loud would have been like parting her lips and conjuring up the dusty gumball instead of the consonants and vowels that make up language. She listened to Ada’s sewing machine humming.
“It wasn’t like a real assault,” she said finally. “It was—small. Assault Junior.”
“Assault Junior.,” Hesper repeated, quiet. “A.J.”
“He followed me. And then. – You don’t have to let go of my shoulders.”
“Okay,” Hesper said, returning to her original position. “Are you okay?”
Her touch felt delicate, now.
“I thought I would feel better if I said it, but it didn’t work,” Willa said, throaty.
“I shouldn’t have nicknamed it,” Hesper said.
“No, I liked it. Thank you.”
“Do you want to talk more?” Hesper asked, in a tone of gentleness that dismantled something Willa was trying very hard to contain.
“No. I want to meet the thing that’s in the kitchen.”
Hesper led Willa into the kitchen, past a very magnet-adorned refrigerator and a small herb garden, to a cardboard box on the floor. Willa bent to peer inside, at the tailed clumps of animal, curled newbornly with their pink triangular ears plastered tight against their heads. They looked frighteningly new and fragile, as though missing a layer—raw, skinned. Willa swallowed. Mother Cat stood, slinking balletishly, her torso swollen against the box. Hesper was speaking, identifying the names of each claimed-for kitten and then little, unclaimed Tibby, but Willa was barely listening. She watched Mother Cat’s eyes glistening greenly, her graceful, acerbic movements as she suddenly jumped from the box and bounded across the tiled floor, the sound of her claws clattering dramatically.
“What’s going on with you?” Hesper clucked, intrigued.
They followed Mother Cat, who was taking steady, deliberate steps across the room. Willa crouched on the floor, knees heavy and spread, approaching Mother Cat, who swept furiously with her sharp nails at something underneath the refrigerator.
“There must be something under there,” Hesper said, straining to see what Mother Cat was hunting. But Willa saw only dark, empty space in the tiny curtain of black between the bottom of the refrigerator and the clean, Swiffered floor tiles.
Willa’s leg muscles started to ache, the pain of stillness and balance, but she didn’t change positions. Her thighs trembled with effort. Hot sweat formed in the space beneath her breasts. Mother Cat swiped her paw relentlessly underneath the machine, concentrated. Willa forgot that she was in Hesper’s sister’s apartment; she forgot Hesper’s iPhone in her back pocket, the chrysalis of comfort that she’d found in images of Times Square; she forgot Hesper. She forgot the boy. She forgot the texture of the tree that he pressed her into. The notes that were playing into her ears, the bruises that had formed underneath her clothes. Transfixed, Willa watched Mother Cat tuck her head underneath the refrigerator, lunging at the unseen. She bared her teeth.