The finally finished Dartmouth application loomed as imminent as Satty imagined the buildings would in person. Pansy, her collectively-agreed-to-be-perfect mother, stood behind her, equally as nervous.
“Go on, hun. I know you’ve done your best. You know it, too. This is what you want, you’ve worked for this, your father works there. There’s a million reasons you’ll make it. Also, your essays were killer.”
“Takes one to know one.”
Snickers broke the pungent silence that had fallen. The Fate of Aunt Rita’s Cat: an often-repeated story, one Satty never let her mother forget. Pansy’s aunt had owned a rather decrepit cat that hobbled on its three good legs. As time passed, it became worse—it stunk more, growled more. Finally, Pansy took matters into her own hands; she snuck into the kitchen and stirred loads of ground-up aspirin into the cat’s wet food.
Their laughter, like the cat, died. Satty looked up and was reminded again of the application. Pulse drumming, heart pounding, she moved the mouse up, just about to click. But then, her father broke into her mind, kicking down its locked door, sitting cross-legged on the couch, stealing away her confidence. Chuckling at her, smiling, shaking his head. She could hear his thoughts, even: Saturnina, you audacious, stupid little girl. When she’d told him she wanted to apply to Dartmouth, when she’d talked to him about running for class office, when she told him she wanted to know more about what he taught. The same headshake, the same chuckle, the same smile. Always the same dismissal, always the same condescension cloaked in the magnanimous garb of affection.
And Satty was afraid. Afraid of what would happen if she wasn’t accepted, afraid of what he’d think of her. But she couldn’t do anything about that now; she sucked in her breath, clicked. On-screen confetti appeared, accompanied by a congratulations. Pansy cheered behind her, hugged her in an awkward neck-and-shoulders-embrace. Satty brushed her arms off, clinked her can of celebratory Diet Coke against her mother’s, and walked to her room. Texted Sebby, who’d submitted his application the week before.
“They’ll consider you now for admission!” He had quite the knack for pointing out the obvious.
“We’re totally going to be Dartmouth buddies.”
Satty tossed her phone across the room, fell onto her bed. Waited for Christmas Break to overcome her, to sweep her up in a blizzard.
The bell rang, roll was called. Satty waited for her name to be butchered.
“Satunia—wait, um, Saturtia? No—”
“Oh. Right. Sorry.”
What an odd name. What a funny name. Pagan! Liberal! Goodness gracious—what did you say your name was? Were you named after the planet? After the god? Do your parents worship the Roman gods? Do you worship the Roman gods?
Laughs that asked, “Are your parents—are you—normal?”
What could she do but fake-smile, laugh timidly, mutter that no, she’s not a pagan and yes, she’s a liberal and she was named after the Roman god because her father is a professor at Dartmouth who specializes in Roman history and mythology and it is her greatest dream in the world to go to Dartmouth but her father doesn’t think she can make it but she does?
She slouched in her chair, waiting until she’d be free, while the teacher went through each minute detail of the syllabus.
The bell rang, the halls flooded with students, each one a drop in a forceful river. Satty was caught up in its unforgiving flow before she knew it, realized too late she had to fight back against it to get to her locker. Not something she cared enough to do, though; the books could wait until tomorrow. She submitted herself to the current, let it carry her away.
It took her to the door, deposited her. An older lady with fluffy white hair, very large purple glasses, and emoji earrings stood by the door, handing out flyers. Apparently they needed volunteers at a nearby cat shelter; the lady seemed chipper, eccentric, nice. There was a recruitment seminar being held to acquaint people with the shelter and encourage them to get involved with it. Satty, always one for felines and grandmothers in giant glasses, said a quick hello, quietly complimented the earrings (which the lady proudly declared she’d bought at Dollar Tree—also a jewelry supplier for Satty’s grandmother), took a flyer, and headed to the car, auburn hair swinging as she walked.
“SATTY! Satty Satty Satty Satty… how was the first day?” Sebby, of course—he claimed he had the energy of a 6-year-old, and wasn’t far off.
“Syllabi. A day of Syllabi.”
“Yeah, teachers go through their syllabi on the first day of school.”
“Oh—also! This lady at the door gave me this.” Sebby brought his hand up with a flourish, and Satty noticed the same flyer she’d been given. She pulled hers out with much less gusto. Sebby squinted.
“They’re the same flyer.”
“Huh. I mean, I’m game to go if you are.”
“Sebby… no, I wasn’t pla—”
“Come on. It’ll be so much fun. Lady seemed nice, anyways. Worst case scenario we can just leave. It’s just an information seminar.”
“I mean… I like cats.”
“Okay perfect I’ll see you at—” Sebby looked down at the flyer, trying to make out the date and time listed on it. “This Wednesday. 7:30 sharp.”
Satty laughed a “See you then;” and the two parted ways.
Wednesday. 7:30. Satty walked underneath the neon “Home Again” sign, dim yellow light shining through the dark and illuminating her, changing her appearance as she moved. The door was stiff and took a couple tries to open. Harsh fluorescent lights, beige cinder block walls, and various cat noises accosted her as she stepped in. Inside was a cat extravaganza—cats on each piece of furniture, cats on the floor, cats in cages, cats on the various shelves. A blanket of hair, too, coating everything. Overwhelming, but almost homey.
Sebby’s hair peeked out from behind a crate; she managed her way around the cats and got to him. A row of chairs facing the old lady they’d met at school had been set up, but nobody else had come. The room wasn’t big, but the empty chairs made it feel cavernous. Satty slid next to Sebby, waving an awkward hello to the still-bespectacled lady, who smiled and checked her watch. He leaned over.
“We’re the only people here.”
Time passed, still nobody came.
Finally, the lady stood, pushed her glasses up her nose with two fingers.
“Well, it doesn’t look like we’ll get any more people.” She sighed, disappointment streaking her already deeply wrinkled face. “Let’s start with introductions. I’m Deedee.”
“I’m Sebastian!” Sebby declared with his usual verve.
“Sebastian and Saturnina. Let’s get started then, shall we?”
Deedee proceeded through a list of duties and responsibilities volunteers at the shelter had, talked about the shelter’s history, gave them a quick tour, finally let them get acquainted with the cats.
“I’m sure they’re what you’re here for, anyways; not some old crone.” Deedee chuckled to herself as she talked in her gravelly, grandmotherly voice.
They played with the kittens, struggled to pull themselves away from the almost magnetic attraction the tiny animals had on them. Deedee came over with sign-up sheets on clipboards. Satty and Sebby exchanged quick glances, realized they were in agreement: this was quite the place. They took the clipboards, flourished (on Sebby’s part) signatures and phone numbers, chatted with Deedee for a minute. They hugged her in a quick goodbye, forced the door open, let the yellow light pour over them, again. Walked in silence, until Satty realized—
“She even smells like my grandmother. Wow. Unreal.”
“I personally think all grandmothers use the same perfume. They’re all an extension of the same person, they all shop at the same stores, they all have Dollar Tree emoji earrings somewhere.”
Satty pulled her car door shut, pulled out, waited for the Madonna CD to start, for the sparkling melodies to engulf her. This time, it was “Pretender.” He's a pretender, he knows just what to say/ He's a pretender, yeah, you meet him every day/ He's a pretender, that fish that got away/ He's a pretender, why'd I fall in love? But this time, the words were more than just words; they meant something. She realized that her father was a pretender. He didn’t love her, didn’t believe in her. And she felt something, felt a twinge of madness, of rage. How had she been so blind? Everything she’d ever done had been for him; her whole life, trying to live up to the bar he’d raise every time she reached it. Just so he could look down at her, laugh at her, make her feel stupid. A father protects, a father loves; not hers.
Lights flowed past her as she sped, windows down, hair thrown around. And then, for a minute, Madonna became quiet, the windshield, her car, went away. She wasn’t going fast anymore, road was no longer beneath her, lights no longer shone; no, she was rowing a canoe up a rushing river. Joyously rowing, laughing. She cut into the water, brought the oars back up, almost felt the clear, cool water kiss her neck. Looked around for a moment, relishing the night air, the stars. The water flew underneath her, pushing her back, but she was stronger than it. She laughed, again, this time at the epiphany. Then, all too soon, the car was back, lights were back, the road was back. Madonna once again blared. But the joy, the joy of the canoe rower who now seemed so foreign to her, stayed.
Satty and Sebby now visited the shelter each day after school. They loved it, loved the cats, the customers, the work. Each other, even. Maybe. But Deedee was the most fascinating part of it, an enigma who, each day, they came one step closer to deciphering. She was always very hesitant to open up (unless asked about her always-fabulous, always-Dollar Tree earrings); spent time with them while they worked, played the little games Sebby came up with, laughed with them, but didn’t respond to their prying questions. Always deflected. They respected her privacy, but it seemed like more than just privacy. She seemed to have fun with them though, seemed to realize that all they wanted was to get to know her.
Sometimes, Satty would wake up and realize she hadn’t thought about the pending Dartmouth admissions decision. The decision that kept growing a day closer, viciously pouring at her, flowing with, flowing on the river of time. But she wasn’t worried about it. Had almost stopped caring about it; yes, she would be happy if she was accepted, but rejection didn’t worry her. She wasn’t worried, no, but maybe a bit afraid. Afraid of her father being right. She wanted so badly to prove him wrong, to show him that she was capable, competent, that her audaciousness was justified. Dartmouth, the admissions deadline, her father, still had control over her—however small.
The cycle—school, shelter, school, shelter—that Satty and Sebby established now defined their lives. Snow melted, rain came. Finally, Satty received an email: one week until Dartmouth decisions. The next six days were much longer than normal, but the shelter helped take their minds off it all. Deedee seemed to grow stranger, odder. She began, slowly, to answer their questions, but this time it seemed like she was lying. But Satty and Sebby loved her all the same.
The days and the snow and the anxiety all melted down into one great puddled mess. The puddle drenched Satty and Sebby until it had dried up; the time was gone. The day of the application decision had come, they both anxiously, compulsively checked their phones. People came and went, the closed sign went up on the door.
“Can you kids come in here for a sec?” Deedee’s voice rang through the halls, jostling Satty and Sebby, who made their way to the office, sat down in the upholstered maroon chairs opposite Deedee’s desk.
“Shut the door, if you would.”
`“I’ve called you in here to… to discuss what needs to be done…. Actually, no. I’m finished with this crap.” Deedee looked different. Something about her eyes was hurt, vengeful. It was off-putting, Satty squirmed; but clearly Deedee was just having a bad day.
“I want to talk to you both. To explain a bit. So I’m going to tell you a story.”
“Wait, the Dartmouth decision comes out—”
“You can wait. Thanks. I should've done all this long before. But—I think... I think I've liked being this... this thing. I've liked being liked by people. But I'm done with it now. It isn't who I am.” The fire in Deedee’s eyes began to leech into her speech. Satty and Sebby glanced at each other in confused almost-horror.
“My niece. We lived next to each other, this girl and I. Also: my cat, Chum Chum. He wasn’t a pretty cat, he didn’t smell good. But I—I loved him so much. He was like a son, he was my son. I’d had him for 12 years, the only true, unconditional love I’ve felt.”
At this, the soon-to-be-Dartmouth-students protested. They’d shown her love, hadn’t they? Was their love not unconditional?
“Stop it. You like Deedee, not me.” The words confused the air, more unasked questions arose. “I’m not much for people, people have never been much for me. Cats are my thing. This shelter is my thing. Chum Chum and I—well, we understood each other. I felt loved by him, I loved him. We were… we were close. I don’t know how to say it… we loved each other.
“But the girl, my niece, hated him. She couldn’t stand his smell, his hobbling around. Oh yes, she was as good as could be, a perfect little girl, but Chum Chum was always wandering off to her yard, and she hated it. I saw my niece and her boyfriend over by the swings in her backyard once. I remember, Chum Chum decided to walk up to them and give them a visit. He looked so perfect—I know he only had three legs, but they were three perfect legs. The girl, my niece, jumped up and shrieked as soon as she saw him. Shrieked! At my cat, at my precious baby. And that was when I knew I hated her. I know what you’re thinking now, how can you hate family? Well, she hated my family. I could hate her. I remember, she hid behind her boyfriend, both of them laughing. Laughing at my Chum Chum. I saw the boyfriend whisper something to her, and she laughed, looked at my cat with an evil glare.
The story Deedee was telling sounded oddly familiar to Satty, but she didn’t care about where she’d heard it before; Deedee was becoming more animated, arms swinging more wildly, eyes stretched apart even more.
“The next day, I walked downstairs calling him, and he didn’t come. I thought it was odd. I kept calling and calling him. Looked everywhere. Where was Chum Chum, where was my little boy? I started to panic. Started to run around my house, inside, outside. Checked the swings. For some reason, I didn’t think to look in the kitchen. I walked in and there he was, crumpled up in the corner. Not breathing, lying in vomit. And I tell you—” Deedee’s hand slammed on the table, almost yelling now.
“I tell you—I wanted to kill my niece. I knew it was her. The next day, I saw her looking at me with puppy eyes, and the wrath that burned in me, the amount of vengeance I had, I tell you. I wanted to kill her, to do to her what she did to me. I was never the same without Chum Chum, still not the same today. I loved him so much and Pansy took it all away from me. Pansy’s lucky she’s still alive.”
“Pansy’s your mom’s name.”
Satty gasped, full horror overtaking her. “Wait—no, not my—”
“Yes. Your mom. I’m your great-aunt I'm not Deedee. I'm Rita.”
“What? You? But I thought—”
“I’d died? Nope. Did anyone actually tell you that, or did you just assume it? I’ve always been here, alive and healthy, waiting until I can get back on Pansy.”
The fire in Deedee’s—no, Rita's—eyes burned brighter, stronger, than it ever had. No longer loving, no longer grandmotherly. But she couldn’t possibly mean—she wasn’t about to do anything to them? Satty still couldn’t imagine it; as horrible as Rita looked, couldn’t imagine her doing anything bad. It was just a bad day. So Satty walked over her to hug her, in the same awkward hug her mother had given her. She rested her head on the old woman’s, straight auburn hair against puffy white. Rita's arm twitched under the table. The old white hair pulled back, looked straight into Satty’s eyes. Fear overcame Satty; Rita plunged the knife into her.
Satty gasped. Fell back. Sebby screamed.
But none of them were there, anymore; Satty was floating on a pond. She could feel herself being pulled under, but couldn’t stop it. She blinked again, Sebby came into focus.
“You’ve killed her, you’ve killed her, you’ve killed her! A pretender, all this time!”
Another pretender, Satty thought.