Ian Denning

BERNARD IS PROBABLY dying, but every morning Caroline pulls him onto her lap anyway, tears open one of the plastic-wrapped needles, and injects the medicine into the scruff of his neck. The cat is stiff—embarrassed by his infirmity, Caroline imagines—and as soon as she withdraws the needle Bernard wriggles free to go sulk in the bathroom. Caroline leaves him a bowl of canned tuna and makes her own breakfast, oatmeal and coffee.

    She didn't sleep well last night. The construction crew was finishing up the new freeway signpost outside her window. Caroline's apartment overlooks Interstate Five where it runs through the heart of Seattle. For a week now, men in orange vests and glowing white helmets have been welding and riveting a new signpost, a square pole as thick around as a mailbox, a gray arch across the freeway. Big circular brackets hang from it, but they haven't installed the signs yet. She hopes she'll have a few nights of decent sleep before they do.

    All day long at work, she worries about the apartment and the cat. The apartment is a splurge: a beautiful building from 1916, red oak floors and little white hexagonal tiles in the bathroom, the kind of thing you don't find that often in Seattle. She thought it was a bargain, but she didn't think about the interstate. Caroline's windows are always dusted with a fine black filth, and they barely keep out the noise. Street people come up from their encampment near the off-ramp and do drugs and yell. Once she saw a man with a rubber tube around his bicep passed out against her dumpster, the needle still stuck in his arm.

    She had planned to move, but then Bernard got sick and the test results were bad and the medicine was expensive, and now she couldn't afford first and last month's rent on a new place. Even if she could, so few apartments allow pets. Bernard has been with her since junior high. He's followed her from apartment to apartment, outlasted all of her boyfriends. The background on her computer is a picture of him in her last place, standing with his tail arched on one of those narrow little windowsills he couldn't turn around on. He always looked so indignant about that, like how dare this windowsill be so small. Caroline knows he's dying, but she'll pay for the medicine anyway. She'll stay in the apartment for him.

    That evening, she cuddles Bernard and heats up leftover spaghetti. She watches a few episodes of TV on Netflix. One of the episodes has to do with the murder of a street person, and Caroline wonders what happened to the junkie passed out against the dumpster. Did the police arrest him? Did he just wake up and wander off? It must be nice to be able to leave a place if you don't want to be there any more, Caroline thinks, then feels guilty. Homelessness isn't something to envy. Before bed, she sticks a finger in Bernard's mouth and makes him swallow one of his pills. Again, he goes and sulks in the bathroom.

    Laughter awakes her in the middle of the night, and for a cold second she thinks it's coming from inside her apartment. But no, Bernard is asleep on her legs—he's forgiven her for the pill, apparently—and the apartment is empty. It's kids right outside her window. She hears the bearing-rattle of shaken spray paint, and a hiss. Curious, Caroline sits up in bed and lifts a blind with one finger.

    They're street kids in baggy clothes, laughing and punching each other's arms. One of them has tagged her dumpster. While she watches, a kid in a checkered hoodie takes a coiled rope from his backpack and ties it to the guardrail next to the twenty foot drop onto the shoulder of Interstate Five. Another kid ties the other end of the rope around his waist and eases himself over the guard rail and onto the arm of the new freeway sign.

    Caroline holds her breath. There's a chainlink gate to keep people from walking out over the interstate, but the boy just climbs over it and eases out into the middle of the span. He's two stories above the freeway, balancing on a post a foot wide. Caroline thinks of Bernard on her old narrow windowsills and she reaches down to pet him. His long fur used to be silky, but now it's as fine as textured air. The boy drops to his stomach and tags the side of the signpost, so that all the cars driving north will know his name. Then he moves further down and paints another tag, then another. His territory marked, the boy stands up and waves at his friends, who cheer. Then he starts dancing.

    He shuffles, does a retro pop-and-lock that cracks his friends up, then he really loses it, grooving up and down on the signpost, pretending to dance with a sexy girl who isn't there, skipping to the side, brushing his shoulders off. He cartwheels—actually cartwheels—hands down, feet in the air, landing on the signpost with a clang. The kid in the checkered hoodie says, “Whoa, damn,” and Caroline has to drop the blind and lie back down. She can feel her heartbeats like punches against her chest.

    Her bed is warm. Bernard is heavy on her legs. She feels suddenly happy in a contained way—insulated in her apartment above the interstate, a golden bubble against the darkness—but there's something hidden in that feeling: the smell of car exhaust underneath scented candles, or the dizziness of looking down past her feet to the freeway.


Ian Denning's short stories have appeared in Five Chapters, Washington Square Review, New Ohio Review, and elsewhere. He graduated from the MFA program at the University of New Hampshire, and he now edits prose for Lettered Streets Press and fiction for Pacifica Literary Review.


Next Story