idol season 11 | week 25 | 1770 words
The Catbird's Seat
Catherine Bell and her friend Lark Bush lived in the downhill side of town. Nobody had much of anything there, except wounded pride and tempers that were too quick to spark and too slow to cool.
Everyone called them Cat and Bird. Cat, who was feistier, thought it was probably simpler for everyone else to remember. God forbid anyone should have to actually work to recall even the slightest detail about either of them.
Lark, always more easy-going, thought it was cute. Lark was never the type to look for ill will, though, or to be resentful. She wasn't even angry at her father for running out on her and her mom. Sad, but not angry.
Cat's dad had done the same, and she was plenty angry about it. Money had gotten even tighter after that, and her mom just drank and complained about how life had treated her. Cat had given up on her after three years of that crap, and had moved into Lark's house during their Sophomore year of high school.
Earning money to help Lark's mom out with rent and groceries was one of the reasons Cat worked part-time, doing the billing for an accounting office Saturday mornings and after school. The other reason was the work experience. Because Cat did not want to end up like her mother.
"I want to do something with my life!" she said one Sunday night, while trying to finish up her Trig homework.
Lark looked up from painting 'Bad Kitty' nail polish on her toes. Lark's homework was finished, because she was this superhuman mathlete or something. "Okay, but what exactly?"
That was one of the mysteries of Lark. "How can you be so practical and so laid-back at the same time?" Cat hadn't been laid-back since the fourth grade, the first time the city had turned off her family's electricity for an unpaid bill.
"I just don't sweat the small stuff, that's all," Lark said.
"People say that, but what does it even mean?"
"It's like, if you want to do something big, figure out what that is and plan for it." Lark paused to wipe off a stray smudge of polish. "But don't sit around all, 'I wanna be a pop-star, why isn't that happening?' and keep stressing. You know? We all want that, but just saying it doesn't mean anything."
"Well, I don't want to be a pop star," Cat said. "But I definitely want something better than minimum wage..."
"Well, yeah," Lark said.
Cat and Lark would walk to school together every morning, trudging from the school-lunch-program half of town to the moneyed half where the high school was located. Cat always felt the weight of the other students' judging eyes on her, waiting for her to slip up and do something awkward or uncultured. It never seemed to bother Lark. When Marcy Bradford or one of the other mean girls would comment on her clothes or her worn-out backpack, Lark would just laugh and say, "Well duh, because I'm poor."
Cat wished she could be like that. The boys would always laugh, like Lark was the coolest thing ever (and she was). And everyone knew the Marcys of this world had it coming.
But Lark was super-pretty, so everything was easier for her. Cat hated herself for thinking that, but she knew that's how things were. She never said anything, though. It seemed rude, and Lark would just have said something like, "You're pretty, too! You just need to believe in yourself."
Funny that Cat could almost hear it, and she knew Lark would mean it, but none of the words ever felt true.
She was lucky that her after-school job was at a business office instead of waitressing like Lark, though. All Cat had to do was work hard, process bills, and be polite. She didn't have to put up with snotty rich kids trying to impress each other at her expense.
Some of the girls would bait Lark, hoping to make her lash out, and she'd ignore them instead. Her tips still suffered unless one of the nice boys was paying—and then sometimes they were higher, because he was embarrassed by the other kids' behavior. Lark said she tried to think of it as a game, to keep it from making her crazy, but even she found it annoying as hell.
"That Elise Simmons is just so smug," Lark said after work one Wednesday night. "She thinks she's the queen of everything. 'I'm sorry, waitress, could I get a better fork? And a clean spoon?' And then she orders French fries, like always."
"It's funny, too," Cat said, "because her Dad is so nice." Elise's father was one of the accountants at the office, and he treated everyone well.
"Maybe she takes after her mother, I don't know."
"Did she really call you 'waitress' instead of your name, though?"
"Yup. But she's always sarcastic when she says my name. She goes, 'Laaark', like it's a fake name nobody actually has. You can hear the air-quotes."
"Ugh, that's so smarmy."
Cat was glad that Lark's mom, Brenda, wasn't around to hear that conversation. Brenda had picked that name because she'd always loved it, and Cat thought it fit Lark's personality perfectly. Brenda had been working swing shift at the Preston Hotel front office lately, so she usually got home just as the girls were going to bed. That had made it easier for Cat to leave money for her earlier in the week, though.
At the beginning of every month, Cat put four-hundred dollars on Brenda's dresser with a note that said, To help with food and rent. Thank you! Love, Cat. She liked to do it when Brenda wasn't around, so they could avoid the whole awkwardness of conversations like, "Cat, you really don't need to do that" and "But I'm so grateful to you for letting me live here!" and "Of course, honey. You're always welcome here, you know that. We wouldn't have it any other way."
Maybe it was only embarrassing for Cat, but she was always afraid of straining Brenda's good will, and she didn't want to be a burden. Brenda always insisted she wasn't, but what if that changed?
Cat didn't really see her until Saturday afternoon that week, when she went into the kitchen for a glass of water.
"Thank you for the extra money, Cat!" Brenda said. She was cutting up a whole chicken and putting the pieces in a large pan to cook. "It's not necessary, but it does come in handy."
Cat blushed, but it was too late to back out of the room. "You're welcome," she said. "I like to do what I can. I know it can't be easy, having two teenagers in the house."
Brenda waved a hand as if she was shooing the idea away. "It's not as bad as you might think, not with this job. And the landlord's an old friend. He hasn't raised the rent on this house in at least two years, and it's never by much."
Even if that weren't true, Cat wasn't sure Brenda would tell her different. She was cheerful like Lark, and didn't seem to take things much to heart. How did they do it?
"Can I ask you something?" Cat said.
"Sure thing, honey."
"I don't understand how come you and Lark don't worry more. You're in the same situation my mom and I were in."
"Oh, Cat," Brenda said. "You know I don't like to talk against your mother, but... things usually aren't so bad if you just keep trying. I mean, Jake was bum and I was doing all the work anyway by the time he left. He was just another mouth to feed, so it was actually easier without him."
She turned a burner onto low heat, and salted the chicken and covered the pan with a lid. "But your mom, she just sort of gave up on everything. And that's what made it so hard for the two of you."
"It sure did," Cat sighed.
"Just you wait—you're smart and you're hard working, and you won't have any trouble taking care of yourself when the time comes. You'll see."
"I sure hope you're right," Cat said.
She still worried on and off. Graduation was coming in a few months, and who knew what she'd be doing then? She supposed she might be able to get a second part-time job, if she had to. And maybe Brenda would let her keep living there for awhile longer, until she got on her feet?
Lark was thinking about taking Community College classes in finance and accounting in the Fall. She wanted to see how she liked them, and whether her math skills could help her find a career. Cat didn't have the budget for anything like that.
But in April, the manager at Cat's office called her in to talk about expanding her hours. "You've been doing a great job for us, and our other billing person is moving to Indiana," Mr. Jeffries said. "Do you think you could stay later in the evening after the office closes, and give us two more hours on Saturday?"
"Yes, I could do that," Cat said. She was sure she could get her homework done around that schedule, and there wasn't as much of it as there used to be.
"This would just be while you're in school. If all goes well, I think we might be able to hire you full-time after you graduate. That is, if you're interested."
"Oh, yes! I am!" she said.
She told Lark as soon as she got home. Lark was almost as excited as she was.
"You're going to be, like, a career woman and everything!"
"Catherine Bell, Head of Billing! Well, all of billing, really."
"It'll be awesome," Lark said, lying on her bed and tossing and catching her stuffed elephant. "Now, if only I could find a job besides waiting tables this summer. Maybe my mom's hotel is hiring."
"Can't hurt to ask," Cat said.
"Hey, do you ever think about the fact that you're Cat Bell and I’m Bird Bush?" Lark asked.
"I try not to. Because that's annoying."
"Really?" Lark said. "I think it's funny."
"You would!" Cat said, and then she thought better of it. "But to be honest, I wish I were a lot more like you that way."
"Well give it time."
Lark sat up and made the elephant do a celebratory dance for her. "The way things are looking up for you, that might still happen someday!"
If you enjoyed this story, you can vote for it along with many other fine entries here.