Charlie found a dead cat once.
It was 1978, the summer she turned nine, and she was staying at her grandparents’ farm. Her parents shipped her there every summer for six weeks, as much for themselves as for her. The farm soothed Charlie’s restless spirit, and she adored her Grandpa Pip, a weathered man with snow white hair whose whole body shook when he laughed and who understood his young granddaughter better than anyone. His name was Franklin, but for reasons no one understood, Charlie had called him Pip from the day she learned to talk. He called her Bug. No one understood that either. It was their handshake, their club, their world.
The day Charlie found the dead cat, Pip had gone early into town to pick up a part for his tractor, her grandmother told Charlie when she came downstairs. The heat made her feel sticky and heavy and not in the mood for breakfast, so Charlie grabbed a banana and announced that she was going outside. Her grandmother made Charlie uneasy anyway – she always imagined the old woman was trying to slowly poison her with her terrible cooking because she was jealous of how close Charlie and Pip were.
Charlie sat down on the bottom step of the front porch, where the shade from the giant, knobbly elm tree left her a cool spot in the mornings to collect her thoughts. Her feet, pushed into her untied black Converse high-tops, were the only part of her in the sun, getting her used to it, like when she went into the pool an inch at a time so the shock of all that cold water didn’t kill her.
She squinted off into the distance, trying to see if she could spot Pip’s clattery old pickup coming back. A wooden fence separated her grandparents’ backyard from the neighbor’s field behind it, and beyond that was a gravel road. The endlessly flat Kansas landscape made it easy for Charlie to lower her head just a bit and make it appear the cars in the distance were driving along the top of the fence. But the fence was empty. Pip wasn’t back yet. No doubt he’d stopped off at the hardware store for a cup of black coffee in a white Styrofoam cup and a discussion with Silas, who had worked there longer than anyone could remember, even Silas. Charlie liked Silas. He always said “Hiya, Charlie girl” and gave her a cold wet can of strawberry Shasta.
The sun had begun to sidle up Charlie’s legs and she moved irritably up a step but it wasn’t long before the sun did the same and, tired of the world’s slowest game of tag, Charlie got up and wandered across the front lawn toward the barn and Pip’s outbuildings, peeling her banana as she went. Pip never wanted her to go into his toolshed without him because it was full of sharp, jabby things but today, missing him, she pushed open the door and went in. It was dusty and cool inside, still momentarily untouched by the rising heat. It had a comforting smell of dried garden soil, paint thinner, and old greasy lawnmower parts. She closed the door behind her, looking around at nothing in particular and eating her banana. She felt strangely safe. No one in the world knew where she was at that moment and, unless she chose to tell them, never would.
The rake Pip had been using in the yard the day before had fallen over and she picked it up and was leaning it against the workbench when she saw the cat. It was big, black and white, and had wedged itself awkwardly between the workbench and some old milk pails. Pip had barn cats all over the place – he called them the Mouse Police – and Charlie wondered how this one had gotten into the shed and managed to get stuck. She moved a milk pail to help it get free and a swarm of flies rose up from its wet-looking head, lolling to the side at a strange angle. A strangled little scream shot out of Charlie and she dropped the milk pail with a clatter that scared her even more. Whirling blindly around, she ran out of the shed, tripped over her untied shoelaces and sprawled on the gravel, skinning her knees and smashing the rest the banana with her palm. It was years before she could eat bananas again, and even then they tasted faintly like dead cat.