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July 28, 2021

A Happy Ending

Lucy Zhou

An orphan lives alone in a cave until she turns thirteen. Then she walks to the nearest orphanage, says she’s looking for a family, and promptly gets herself shipped off to the suburbs. Her new family is nice: the father works a lot but always has time to give her piggyback rides; the mother sells cosmetics from home and clucks about, taking mouthfuls of white, oblong pills; the sister actually shares her toys. One day the no-longer orphan drops a dead bird, freshly strangled, onto the kitchen table. She smiles, waiting for praise, even as the mother screams and faints into a well-manicured puddle. The sister calls her a freak; she doesn’t know what it means, but the word nicks like a small stone. The father isn’t home. They ship her off to another suburb. This family is not-so-nice: the father talks too loudly and believes in spanking as a form of discipline; the mother pokes at the no-longer orphan’s bones and says she is lucky to be here; the brother watches her thinking that she doesn’t notice. She does. One night as she’s taking a shower, she feels a presence at the door. At first, she thinks it’s the cat: a squat, orange tabby that follows her around the house like a ghost. Sometimes she feels only the cat understands her; when they window-sit in the sun, she can see the lonely in the cat’s eyes, reflecting what’s beyond the glass: green, green, green. Without turning off the water, she quietly slides open the shower curtain and presses her wet body against the door. She listens: first nothing; then a gulp, like a deep-sea creature coming up to the surface for oxygen or a mouth-breather wearing braces, just breathing. She opens the door. Before the brother can exhale, she slams an elbow into his jaw, then knees him twice in the pelvic area. The brother flies like a paper airplane into the wall. Downstairs, the mother asks the father, what’s that sound? The no-longer orphan knows a lost cause when she sees one. As she cracks open the bathroom window, she hears a meow; it’s the cat, looking up at her with those big, yellow eyes. Fuck it. She picks up the cat and takes a deep breath; jumps. On the way down, a branch licks her ankle red-jeweled. They run. A family is eating dinner when the son sees a flash of white, then orange, through the darkened windows. He looks at his mom and dad, who did not notice, and shakes his head, chalks it up to being high. The family continues eating in silence. The now-orphan and the cat reach the cave by dawn. It is cozier than she remembers, like the inside of a conch shell, damp and warm. As she clears away some dead leaves, the cat rubs against her leg and meows. She understands. Like little gods, they run, run into the woods: a happy ending.