She wore ill-fitting navy-blue flats, the shoes she wore to church with her parents. They were the only thing that matched her outfit, which she hoped looked casual, like she hadn’t thought about it too much, like she went on dates all the time. She thought about wearing her gold sandals, she loved the way they made her feet look like a more mature version of themselves, but she did not want to look too dressed up, too invested, as though she thought they were going to a red carpet event. Trey would probably be wearing shorts. That’s how boys were.
But Katie was invested. She had not been on many dates, and she would be in college soon. She had arrived at her high school sophomore year with the aloof-but-desperate look of a military kid who moved around a lot, had promptly joined the extra-curriculars and corresponding social groups appropriate for her status level (drama, wind ensemble, photography club), and had quickly made friends, mostly the forgettable sort of friends she made everywhere she’d lived. Periodically, there were boys who were rumored to like her, and she would go with them to a dance, to Denny’s after the cast party, or even to their house to watch a movie. She had been kissed exactly three times: once, too eagerly, by Michael Smelzer after a band concert (she’d thought what the heck, but had drawn back in horror when he immediately tried to stick his tongue in her mouth), and twice by a boy named Brandon who was a day camp counselor with her at Brookside Camp, where her job was to make yarn crafts with dozens of screaming ten-year-olds whose parents worked. It was a nice kiss until he said, “Wanna go in the tool shed on our break?” She’d replied, “Um…. not really…” To which he’d said, “Cool,” and never paid her any attention again.
The fourth kiss, the best one, really, would be from Trey Andrews, a lacrosse-playing senior, leagues beyond her socially, who had inexplicably left his team senior year and tried out for a school play, and wound up playing Benedick opposite her Beatrice in a very abridged version of Much Ado. He was olive skinned and blue eyed and had that jock swagger that other theater boys did not have, and he was not gay. Katie knew, because Trey Andrews had dated Lisette Peterson, and had a string of girlfriends before her. He looked cocky and made a good Benedick, and they had chemistry, something she’d never had with anyone on stage, or anyone off stage for that matter, except maybe her friend Parker, who did not do theater but who was gay.
Trey Andrews ignored Katie, mostly, for the first three weeks of rehearsal, except to say lines with her and then leave in the car of some other lacrosse-playing senior, engine revving over laughter and music, like in a movie, while Katie left in the passenger seat of her mom’s minivan. But at some point the week before tech week, when she’d decided to really commit to being a good Beatrice, to really nail her lines–especially the argument scene where she says even if Benedick’s face got scratched by a dog, it wouldn’t be worse–he did start to pay attention to her, a little. It had felt good to hurl insults at Trey Andrews, because it was something. He would never like her, pay attention to her, so at least she could have this contrived passion with him on stage, even if they mostly hated each other in the abridged version. At least she could have something with him. Surprisingly, he actually got his lines memorized–nobody thought he would–and he was good at them, and by the end of tech week, Katie thought maybe they were friends. Slightly flirty friends, which was thrilling and unsettling.
And then on a Thursday after school, when the play was over and there was really no reason for them to be seen together, Trey Andrews stopped by Katie’s locker and asked her what she was doing on Saturday. For a moment her mind raced: was there some mandatory meeting of cast members? Did he need to borrow notes for a class? She couldn’t think why he was asking.
And now here she was, eating a nice dinner with Trey Andrews at a fancy-ish restaurant, not a Denny’s or a Chipotle but a date restaurant, her tight, ugly shoes kicked off under the table. The shoes didn’t matter because he had the bluest eyes and ordered like a grown up, raising an eyebrow at her to indicate that she could order first, which made her a little dizzy. The waiter was in his twenties, so Trey was younger, but he wasn’t nervous at all and even seemed to brush the waiter off just a little, which was so adult. Trey wasn’t actually rude or anything, just confident, Katie told herself. And maybe he felt just a teeny bit cooler than the waiter even though he was younger, because the waiter was chubby. Athletes were like that, they couldn’t help it. Plus, Trey made her laugh at dinner, talking about his team and his friends, and when she reached for her little purse when the bill came, he’d said I got this and put a gold credit card in the wallet thingy they give you, sliding it in the pocket like he did it all the time.
Walking to his car, he’d taken her hand for a minute, sliding his fingers down her arm first, then letting go. He’d tilted her face up, right there in the parking lot, and she’d thought oh, so that’s what they mean in books when it says her knees went weak…
What do you want to do now? He’d asked, in an almost-whisper, and her stomach flip flopped. Another first. She’d been ready for the question, though: there was an old movie playing at the dollar theater, she told him, the one where the guy dances in roller skates and it’s amazing. It was a really old movie but her grandmother liked it, her grandmother had grown up in California and lived near the famous dancing actor when she was a little girl. Plus, it was two dollar popcorn night.
Trey had made a strange face and said wouldn’t that take like two hours? Yes, she’d said, it would, and then suggested they go to the bookstore on Princess Street instead, they had outdoor seating and they let you take books out there even if you weren’t buying them. Sometimes they had live music.
Trey had sighed at that, which Katie couldn’t understand, but he’d said okay and started driving in that direction. Was there something you wanted to do? She’d asked, and he’d said no, this was fine, but something in the atmosphere had changed. Or maybe she was overthinking it.
Pulling into the parking lot of Cyrano’s Books and getting out of the car, Katie heard a little flapping noise in the grassy median that separated the two halves of the parking lot. A small bird was just feet away from her, flapping and then stopping to rest, its beak open a little.
“Oh, gosh, oh no, the poor little guy, I think he’s hurt,” Katie said, a small, sad panic rising up from deep inside her. She could tell the bird’s wing was badly hurt, and she instantly decided two things without even thinking: that this was a boy bird, she would call him him, and that something had to be done for him, though the prognosis was grim.
“Leave it,” Trey said, just ask Katie bent down to scoop the bird up in her sweater. Did Trey have anything like a little shoe box in his car, she wondered? Or even a hat or something? If she took off her sweater, maybe she could wrap the bird in it to keep him still while they found help.
“What?” she said, taking off her cardigan. Had he just said leave it?
“That’s so gross, leave it alone,” he repeated.
Katie swallowed. “He’s hurt,” she began. “It’s his wing I think. There are animal rescue places that might take him, we could at least call–”
“God, what’s wrong with you?” Trey said, a sneer on his face, confusion in his eyes. “Just leave it, it’s dirty, and–”
“He’s hurt, and he’s not that dirty, plus I think he’s a bluebird, and if we could just find some help–”
“Jesus, that’s so fucking weird, I should have known,” Trey said, rolling his eyes. Somebody from the patio of the bookstore looked over at them as he raised his voice, “Just leave the stupid thing, it’s just going to die–”
“I KNOW IT’S GOING TO DIE!” Katie shouted, and now several people from the patio looked over at them, and slowly returned to their conversations. The bird’s head, she now saw, was sort of at an odd angle. “I know that,” she said again, quietly this time. Her throat was suddenly sore, and she felt the cool sting of tears in her eyes, but she willed them back down to wherever they came from. “But if there is a chance we could save him, like find a vet or something, we should at least try. Or we could at least, I don’t know… take him somewhere…” Her voice trailed off. She really didn’t know what her plan was. Maybe they could call a vet with after hours.
Trey starred at her, and she knew he was analyzing something, calculating. She also knew, in that instant, that he didn’t really like her, and if he did, she did not care. She took off her sweater, a whisper-thin, light blue cotton shrug her mom bought her at a beach when she was fifteen. She bent down and wrapped the bird in it; it did not put up a fight.
“I think you should take me home,” she told Trey, meeting his gaze.
“Jesus,” he said again, getting into the car and slamming his door, not helping her with her door this time, though she was cradling the bird-sweater now.
They didn’t speak all the way to Katie’s house. The bird died in her sweater, in her arms, as she thought it might. She looked straight ahead and did not cry. It was only a twelve-minute drive to her house, but she saw, stretched before her, a whole future, more clearly than anything she’d imagined before. She would continue to act; she was surprisingly good at it. Maybe not for a job, but maybe. She would study what she wanted, learn as much as she could, and stop imagining other people were cooler than her, better than her. She would stop waiting for everything to happen to her and decide what she wanted to happen to her instead. She would throw the navy-blue flats in the garbage.
Trey Andrews stopped in front of Katie’s house exactly long enough for her to get out before he sped away. Walking toward her front door, carrying a small, dead bird wrapped in her sweater, she felt, suddenly, as light as air. She felt free.