All the mourners had left. The casket stood in obstinate, definite silence, like a shut-in turtle, not giving anything of itself. Tiny lacy patterns swirled in silver paint around the bottom and the top rim, and the black wood shone. In Marcia's brown eyes the room blurred and dulled, and she half tripped down the two steps into the parlor. She drew a breath to avoid sobbing aloud, walking slowly toward the black box. She carried flowers, a bunch of hovering baby's breath; and as she came close, she drew up the long, badly fitting dress to her knees, kneeling on white tile. Her eyes would not lift from the floor. She felt she must say something to her mother, say anything, pretend for a moment that she was alive again. Too much weight, Marcia thought, all at once, I can't take it all at once, I can't, mom, I need one more minute of you, I didn't have long enough, let me tell you something. You don't have to talk back, just pretend you're listening, let me sit you up and talk like you can hear me. I want to tell you what I did in school, what I want for supper, what my teacher said, and that I can't take it all at once, it's too much.
She couldn't raise her eyes from the floor. She couldn't lok at the closed coffin. She couldn't speak aloud. There was dirt in between the white tiles, dust like the dust on refrigerator tops, dust like the dust on shoes. Marcia watched her finger making lines through the dust.
Something drew up beside her, its head at the height of Marcia's eyes. Marcia looked into the face of a cat.
"She's dead," Marcia said before she realized she could speak again. She stopped drawing lines in the dust and placed the baby's breath down on the tile. The cat said nothing, but sat slowly down beside her, curling its tail unobtrusively around itself. They watched each other. Marcia sniffed.
"I'm no good in algebra. Last week she said I was no good in algebra, and I don't do my homework. I brought home my report card and she got all mad because I had three Fs."
The cat watched the movement of Marcia's wet mouth.
"You know what I did? I told her I hated her."
The cat's ears moved a little, and as they did, its long whiskers were drawn back delicately. Marcia sniffed again because she hadn't any kleenex, then wiped an arm across her nose.
"I haven't got any friends," she said, her voice shaky, "and my father says I have his mother's big nose, and I can't bake a cake 'cause it always falls and when I went to camp in fourth grade I was so homesick they called my parents in the middle of the night," she sobbed, "to take me home. And I trip over everything. And I break glasses all the time." She sniffed hard although her whole upper lip was wet by now. "I'm ugly, I always was, and I can't do anything right." She shuddered with held-in sobs and wiped at her nose with the other arm, running the whole length of it from elbow to fingers under her nose. The cat sat silent and watched.
Marcia now raised her eyes to the coffin and put a wet finger on the shiny, cool black lid. Getting shakily to her feet she looked down at it. "But Mom told me I had nice eyes," she said.
The cat stood up too and padded across the white tiled floor to Marcia's feet, looking up at her with ears flattened back and whiskers streamlined.
Marcia said wearily, hopelessly, "She had to die? She had to die? And will I have to die some day?" Removing her finger left a spot of wetness which Marcia could find no dry part of her to wipe off. She ran her elbow across the coffin lid, smearing it, and then she raised the hem of her dress to wipe at it, but the hem wouldn't reach, so she wiped her right hand on the dress and ran the hand over the lid of the coffin. A long, wet mark ran from one end to the other, and four small greasy fingerprints settled themselves on the far right, where her hand had left the wood. Marcia sniffed, looked about her for a cloth, and without warning, crumpled to the ground crying. Tears ran down the strange and unattractive curves of her face, dropping in spots onto the dusty floor. She peered through the goldfish bowls of her eyes at the cat. The cat was now sitting again, watching the floor where her tears fell.
"I wish I were a cat." The cat looked into her eyes.
"You wouldn't if you were one."
Marcia was unable to move again, but stopped crying and held her breath, eyes meeting the cat's.
"Do you think I want to die?" the cat said. "Go home." The voice was soft and bordering on kind. With ears straight it said, "She can't hear you now. Go home. I don't want to be a cat, and I never did. Did I have a choice? I am one. I don't want to die, but I will. Now, if I wanted to be a cat, I would be happy. And if I wanted to die, I could be happy knowing someday I will."
Marcia waited, tears drying in the corners of her eyes like sand.
"Go home," the cat said. "Be happy you have nice eyes."
The cat turned away from the girl and didn't listen for a response. It padded silently over the white floor.