My mother had a valid point that I wasn’t doing anything else, but that still didn’t mean I wanted to start packing or preparing my room to be turned over to one of my younger twin sisters the moment I left for the train station. After working day shifts at a summer camp in a nearby town (residency in the upscale suburb was required for attendance but apparently not cheap teenage labor) and night shifts at a steakhouse, and the usual unpaid labor at my father’s store, I had given myself two weeks off before leaving for college and was looking forward to doing as much nothing as possible.
There was no arguing with my mother though, she would nag me until I got something done, so the sooner I started the sooner I would have some peace. With a sigh and an exaggerated cat-like stretch, I closed my magazine and climbed off my bed to start sorting through the t-shirts in my dresser. Ten minutes later, with a large pile and a small save pile of my favorite sports shirts, I found a small, stained white t-shirt with an image of a regal calico cat with frost on her whiskers. “Inga: One of the Mount Washington Observatory’s Year-Round Personnel” it said. I smiled, remembering when I got it.
It was the summer between kindergarten and first grade, the year before my sisters were born. My father’s convenience store had turned a consistent profit for the preceding few years, and then he lucked into a windfall of free publicity and a moderate bonus for selling a winning lottery ticket. To my mother’s astonishment, he announced that he was closing the store for a long weekend and we were going on a vacation. Until that point, “vacation” had meant a trip into the city with my mother to see my cousins, which was still a treat for me at that age.
This time though my father was missing the mountains of his home country and because paying for a flight was still out of the realm of possibility, he decided to drive directly to the tallest mountain he could find. In retrospect, I don’t even know how he learned about Mount Washington before the internet, but there we found ourselves on a hot, cloudless day puttering up the winding road to the summit in our Ford Escort that smelled of mildew. My father shared facts about the mountain and comparisons with the mountains of his childhood in between admonishments to “look at that view! No people!”. Apparently, the line of cars in front of and behind us didn’t count.
When we parked at the summit parking lot, my mother opened the passenger door and it was almost ripped free of the car frame by a gust of wind. She braced herself, telling my father to leave his hat (a faded New York Mets hat, not because he liked baseball but because he thought the font of the NY was elegant) in the car. I unbuckled myself and slid across the backseat to my mother’s outstretched hand, terrified and in awe of the otherworldly landscape.
We walked around the summit area, my father pointing out the nearby peaks, and had a stranger take a photo of us with our carefully rationed disposable camera at the high point sign. (When we got it developed my father was thrilled that the photo accurately depicted the wind with the hair on all three of our heads blowing to the left at a ninety-degree angle.) Before heading down, we wandered into the small observatory gift shop so my mother could use the bathroom. While my father browsed meteorology books, I fixated on a t-shirt with a cat on it, begging my father to buy it for me and ignoring his insistence that we couldn’t afford souvenirs and could barely afford this trip. At that age I already loved animals, and almost all of my clothes were hand-me-downs from my older male cousins. The older woman behind the counter heard me and bent down to a hidden corner, popping back up a minute later with the live version of the cat on the t-shirt. Six-year-old me was ecstatic!
“Her name is Inga,” the kind, frizzy-haired woman said. “She’s very friendly. You can pet her, just don’t touch her belly.”
My father lifted me up so that I could gently stroke her head and back. Her fur was incredibly silky and she purred contentedly, rubbing her head on my hand.
“She doesn’t mind the cold, but she doesn’t like cars much, so she usually stays in here during the busy times,” she continued.
I nodded sagely. If I was a calico cat who lived on a mountaintop, I wouldn’t like the cars either.
My mother came out of the bathroom as I was telling the lady behind the counter about my plans to be a “dog and cat doctor”, and my father put me down, murmuring that we needed to get back on the road before the weather got worse.
“I just realized,” the woman behind the counter said to him thoughtfully, “I have an Inga shirt back here that was sized wrong. Why don’t you take it for your little girl? It’s going to be big on her now but it can be a dress, and then a shirt when she grows up to be a cat doctor.”
My father, never one to trust a gift, opened his mouth to refuse buy my mother silenced him with a single look, icier than the howling wind, and reached across the counter to take the shirt.
“Thank you so much ma’am, that is so kind of you,” she said, having learned most of her English from watching Gone with the Wind on repeat. “What do you say,” she asked me.
“Thank you very much ma’am. Thank you,” I said, grinning widely at the lady, and the shirt, and the real live cat on the counter.
Looking at the shirt again in my bedroom, I knew I should just get rid of it – even if it still fit, I was already going to be the scholarship kid, I couldn’t be the stained-clothes kid too – but I couldn’t. As I re-folded it to add to the “save” pile, an idea flashed across my brain. I had spent the last six years doing every extracurricular activity and after school job I could cram into my schedule, knowing that my only chance of going to college and becoming a veterinarian was to get a scholarship. I had convincingly debated issues I didn’t fully understand, won varsity letters in soccer, winter track, and softball, won two essay contests, tutored for the SATs within months of acing the SATs, and unloaded innumerable cartons of assorted preserved foods onto the shelves of the family store at the beginning and end of the days. My parents encouraged all of it, living their American dream through the goals they set for me.
Despite getting into Dartmouth, I couldn’t go to the Ivy League school in the mountains because Boston College, the only urban campus I had applied to, had given me nearly a full academic scholarship but that was fine, I was just happy to be getting out of suburban New Jersey. I sat cross-legged on the faded rug next to my bed and started checking car rental prices and trail maps, solidifying a plan to steal a little bit of freedom and adventure, and pay homage to my six-year-old self before truly becoming an adult.
Seven days later, I woke up in the backseat of my rental car in the Pinkham Notch visitors center parking lot, the start of the hike up Mount Washington. Telling my parents I had to be on campus early for “scholarship orientation” I had taken the train from Penn Station to Boston, dropped my suitcases and had a restless night of sleep on my cousin’s friend’s couch, and then leisurely driven the four hours up from Boston. The sun was just clearing the surrounding mountains and there was not a cloud in the sky. I double-checked my pack, double-checked that the car key was not in the trunk and the car was locked, and trudged over to the trailhead.
Humble to a fault, within an hour in I realized I had been arrogant to assume that running around with elementary school kids all summer had been adequate training for a hike like this. The trail was comprised entirely rocks of irregular shapes and variable sizes, and the closer I got to the summit, the steeper it got. I had plenty of food and water and the sky remained clear and blue which could never be taken for granted on this mountain, but damn was I tired. Finally, I caught a glimpse of the small observatory at the summit, which gave me a burst of strength for the last push up steep boulders.
After catching my breath, I found a place to sit down and scarfed down a peanut butter sandwich, then took a few photos before heading into the gift shop. There was no trace of Inga but there were t-shirts with the picture of a very handsome cat apparently named Nin. I smiled, happy that the Mount Washington weather observatory continued to be governed by a feline.
As I walked behind the observatory to see the view from the other side, I was stopped in my tracks when I caught sight of a girl who could have been me or one of my sisters from behind. She had the same dirty sneakers and clothes that didn’t fit quite right, and the same messy braid. Shaking off the odd sensation, I noticed she was petting a white cat with a black spot on his back. Just as I noticed the cat, she noticed me.
“This is Nin!” she told me excitedly. “He helps keep mice away. I like mice, but I like cats more,” she continued, “when I grow up I’m going to be a big cat scientist, to help keep them from being extinct.”
Her mother took in the dried sweat on my shirt and my oversized pack. “Let’s let this woman get back to her hike, honey,” she said, smiling at me apologetically.
Turning from them, I dashed back into the gift shop, not wanting to give them time to leave, and purchased a Nin shirt on the credit card my father had helped me open the week before for emergency use only. Speed walking back to where I had seen them, I thrust the small brown shopping bag at the girl’s mother, realizing I didn’t know what to say.
“I bought this for your little girl, I hope that’s ok,” I said, fumbling for a better explanation. “It’s uh, it’s kind of a long story, but I just wanted her to have it.”
Confused for a moment, the mother looked into the bag. “Look Priya, it’s a kitty shirt! What do you say to the nice lady?”
“Thank you lady!” the little girl trilled obediently, beaming at the shirt, then me, then Nin who was slinking away behind a rock.
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Hi Maria, Congrats on the shortlisted story! I always enjoy when there are callbacks to the past in the present, in this case: the MC and the little girl, Inga and Nin, and animal doctor and scientist, and the t-shirt to pay it all forward at the end. Such a sweet message. Thanks for sharing it with us!
Congratulations on the shortlist. I always admire when someone manages to put together a concise piece of work that lets you into an entire world, and I think this story did that very effectively.