by Meghan Phillips
Gertie wouldn’t tell us why no one came to her birthday party.
She spent a whole week of recesses making invitations shaped like a cat’s head. From my spot in left field, I could see her at her desk in the third grade classroom, tracing a paper plate on sheet after sheet of black construction paper.
She brought all the invitations home once she finished them, even though she was just going to bring them back to school on Monday to give to her class. She said she wanted to show mom before she gave them away. She wouldn’t even put them in her backpack for the walk—she said it would crush the whiskers—so she carried them with a hand lightly pressed on the top of the stack the twelve blocks home.
As soon as we got in the door, Gertie took one of the invitations to the laundry room to show the kittens. She came back into the kitchen holding one of them. It wasn’t moving. She took a coffee can from the recycling bin, stuffed it with paper towels, and put the curled little body inside.
The morning of Gertie’s party, mom was in the kitchen trying to turn two cake rounds into a cat-shape. She had seen something in an old Good Housekeeping about cutting one round in a special way so the scraps could be used for ears and a tail. It didn’t work. We used the two least mangled pieces and stuck them next to the other cake like ears. Mom thought this was better than the fancy magazine version. Our cake matched Gertie’s invitations. She and I tried to make black icing by mixing all the food color dyes together, but they never fully blended, leaving us with a big bowl of murky brown icing veined with blue and red.
Mom and I were taping the last streamers to the fence when Gertie came out to the patio. She was cradling the remaining kittens. Mom asked if she was looking forward to seeing her friends. Gertie just rubbed her face against the kitten’s velvet heads.
Mom decided that 45 minutes was long enough to wait and brought the cake outside. We sang happy birthday, dear Gertie, and she lifted her face up from the kittens to blow out the candles. She cringed when Mom cut into the cat cake’s face.
Monday Mom said that I should walk to school without Gertie, so I cut through the graveyard. The shortcut saved a few minutes, but Gertie never wanted to go this way. She liked the old-fashioned names but said the weathered tombstones made her sad. She said they reminded her of the tented name tags the teacher puts on your desk the first day of school.
I left the main path to weave through the rows of stones, looking for names to offer Gertie for the kittens. At the end of a row that had two Patience-s and a Hortense was a small plot with fresh turned dirt. The marker was tiny, no bigger than a shoe box and set low to the ground. I couldn't make out the name on the stone, but I could see a pair of black construction paper ears poking out of the dirt.
Meghan Phillips is the fiction editor for Third Point Press and an associate editor for SmokeLong Quarterly. You can find her writing at meghan-phillips.com and her tweets @mcarphil. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.