A short story by

The Cat Died Nobly

It was a particularly balmy morning when it all started.

Usually when I got to the toll booth, it was so early and so cold that I could see my breath against the gray sky morning. So when I'd pulled up to my parking spot and realized I didn't need my hoodie zipped up to my chin, I had pushed my toll booth window down and let the warm breeze tickle my skin. I took solace in the much needed change of atmosphere.

Another car whizzed through the toll booth, the familiar beep sound following soon after, confirming they had the new pre-paid system. The toll booth company, or whoever ran these things, had already installed it by the time I started working at there. Apparently, it had caught on as quickly as a brushfire.

Most of my co-workers (if you could call them that) loved it. Practically did their job for them, they said, and they still got paid. A few others, like Paula, the woman who I took my cigarette breaks with, were a bit nostalgic about it.

Whenever we'd take our breaks together, she would always bring up the topic of the pre-paid system, sounding wistful. "Andy," she'd wheeze at me, shaking her head sadly.

Paula was a stout woman in her late fifties who had been addicted to cigarettes since her teen years and had the worst smoker's cough I'd ever heard. Her hair was streaked with gray, her eyes heavy with eye shadow, and, like me, most of her clothes were used or bought at outlets. She also worked the morning circuit—which, despite the raise in pay, few people wanted to take.

It worried me that I could easily see myself in Paula's shoes a couple of decades later, but usually I tried not to think about it.

She'd cough loudly, and then promptly take a long drag of her cigarette. "I remember when I started working at the toll booth. I was probably in my late thirties. Henry and me had just split—" Henry and I, I wanted to correct, but held my tongue. "—and I was flat broke from the divorce. You know how much that son-of-a-bitch lawyer charged me for a measly divorce? You don't even wanna know, suga'. More than a year's paycheck, I'll tell ya that."

"Son-of-a-bitch," I'd cluck, because that's what she'd want to hear, as I watched my cigarette's smoke spiral in the direction of the wind.

"'Nyways," she'd continue after another puff of the cigarette, "I took this job when I couldn't find nothing else. That was before all this fancy-shmancy pre-paid bullshit. People actually had to talk to ya, ya know? Say 'thank you' or at least acknowledge us, somethin' as simple as a nod of the head. Now it's like they can't be bothered. Too rich for us."

I would always have to smother my eye rolls at that point. Paula would box all of us, the toll booth workers or everyone from East Clover, into her own righteous world, where it was The Poor People from the Wrong Side of Town vs. The Rest of Them, and we were always the victims.

She'd look at me hard and smile impishly, like we were kindred spirits or something. "You know?" she'd wheeze.

"Yeah, I know." I hated being the victim, but I never told her that. I'd learned pretty quickly that disagreeing with Paula would only get you into trouble; she had a big mouth and wouldn't hesitate to turn it against you.

Working at the toll booth wasn't exactly the high-light of my life, but it paid decently, especially compared to my last job as a bar waitress, Mama's old job. Sometimes I'd get nice tips from there, but usually the men I waited on were too drunk to remember to tip me as they were being kicked out for leering on me.

"She's only sixteen," Carl, the owner, would snap and throw them out the door. He had understood when I'd quit—he said it'd been a mistake to hire me. He'd bet that it probably wasn't legal anyway, to let a minor work in a bar.

We both knew bar-work wasn't for me, even from the start; he'd only hired me because he had a soft spot for Mama.

I'd usually be taking my early morning shower right as Mama was coming in. She had moved up in the bar world, having made contacts while still working for Carl and taken a bartending offer at a bar in North Clover. It meant more money, but it also meant she worked late nights.

For my shift at the toll booth, I would get there at four-forty-five in the morning and work until six-thirty, which meant I rarely saw anyone, so I'd just do the homework I'd forgotten about and watch the sun rise into the gray morning.

Of course, a few people made the early morning commute to the city, a good forty-five minutes to an hour away, (it was an hour and a half or more if there was traffic, and there usually was; these people traveled early enough to beat it) but nine out of ten of them had the pre-paid system and would buzz right past me.

Like I said, it was a really warm morning and my window was wide open. I knew winter wasn't over yet, so I was going to damn enjoy the mild heat while I could.

And to think, I'd almost gotten the job at Vinny's Vinyl's, I thought silently as another blur of color whipped past me, beeping as it went.

I don't know why I kept those things in my head; it wasn't as though anybody would ever hear me. Seriously, I could belt out Janis Joplin for all I cared, as loud as I wanted, and still all I would hear was my own crappy imitation of Janis's raspy brogue echoing back at me. I should've just lied and said I lived in North Clover. Who'd hire a scruffy girl from East of Perfectville, anyway?

Actually, some music sounded real good right now—I was doing my dreaded math homework, so I really needed something to keep me going—so I slipped on the headphones Carl gave me for my sixteenth birthday and attached them to my walkman.

While I didn't have any Janis, I did have the mix CD the guy at Vinny's Vinyl's had made for me, so I slipped that into the CD player and skipped to track seven, my favorite.

I kept the headphones on half-blast (I couldn't afford to blow the speakers) as Janis poured into my ears. Maybe it was the odd weather, but before I knew it, I was singing along to a song by The Mountain Goats in full tempo, loudly tapping my pen against my math homework.

"I broke free on a Saturday morning, I put the pedal to the floor, headed north on mills avenue, and listened to the engine roar," I belted, getting really into it and banging my head around.

I was just getting to the next line when I heard a tap of a car horn next to me. With the headphones only on half blast and my window wide open, the noise was loud enough to make me nearly made me fall out of my chair with surprise.

I stole a look at the old Camry next to my window, glaring. A guy with curly corn-silk hair, probably my age or close to it, grinned up at me, looking exactly the opposite of how I was feeling: amused. "Heh, sorry. I didn't mean to scare you," he apologized, chuckling.

"Right," I seethed sarcastically, brushing my auburn hair out of my eyes. I had cut it too short, I realized shortly after examining my new do in the mirror; I could no longer tie it up in a ponytail like I usually did. Still, the choppy look worked with my waves well.

His teal blue eyes crinkled with laughter. "Well, in my defense, I had to get your attention somehow," he said, shrugging, as if this excused scaring me out of my wits.

I snorted disbelievingly. "You could've said something," I pointed out, still bitter.

This only seemed to make him more amused. "I did. Twice, actually."

"Oh." I felt my cheeks reddening.

"Don't get me wrong," he said, leaning an arm out of his window, "I loved the John Darnielle impersonation. I almost didn't want to interrupt you; it was that good."

I wrinkled my nose, trying to fight the blush. "How do you know The Mountain Goats?" I asked warily. Despite having a trace of stubble, he looked a bit too clean cut to listen to that kind of music—most people I knew had never heard of them.

"My older sister," he said coolly. "She's really into that whole music scene. I didn't have much of a choice of whether or not I was going to learn every little detail about bands."

"Oh," was all I said, a bit startled by his full response. I'd mostly been expecting a shrug, which is what I'd do; it would give me an enigmatic air, if nothing else. Suddenly, remembering he was a customer, I stuck my hand out, my pen still laced in my fingers. "And that'll be three dollars."

He whistled, his eyebrows arched in disbelief. "That's a bit expensive, don't you think?"

Just hurry it up all ready with the chit chat and pay me so you can go, you annoying idiot, I thought to myself, brooding. Shrugging, I thrust my hand out further for emphasis. "I don't make the rules. But unless you've got the pre-paid thing, that'll be three dollars."

"Hey! What's the rush? I bet you could use the company; I mean, when was the last time you had somebody to talk to while working this job?"

All right, he had a point. But that didn't mean I wanted to talk to him. Maybe, in any other situation, I might have found him cute; but at least here I already knew he was utterly annoying who was a little too honk-happy, and wouldn't have to suffer through a torturous first date, mislead by his good looks.

I huffed, indignant. "So?"

"So…come on. I bet you need to talk," he pressed, grinning lopsidedly.

Cute or not, the fact that he could be so chipper so early in the morning really ticked me off. I knew he meant well, really. It was just, I had to smile so tightly my cheeks would begin to hurt as to keep myself from yelling at people; this poor guy was only being friendly, but the nicer he was, the angrier I got.

Once I get enough money, I thought, I'm never, ever working another morning shift in my life.

"I bet you need to be somewhere," I shot back, checking over my shoulder to see if any cars were coming and instantly swearing mentally. Damn this early morning; why couldn't there be any other commuters at five in the morning heading towards my lane?

"Not yet," he quipped. A navy blazer with an insignia I couldn't recognize, a pair of khaki pants, and a brush were strewn across the passenger seat. A second inspection at the car showed the backseat was covered in wrappers, papers, and binders.

I frowned; it took serious organization for a teen to get up as early as we were (I would know), but by the way he kept his car, he sure didn't seem very organized to me, let alone one who could function enough to drive at five AM. In fact, he was still wearing plaid pajama pants, a white cotton tee, and his hair was sticking up in all different directions. It was like he'd rolled out of bed and gotten straight into the car.

"Are you even wearing shoes?" I asked, squinting at his attire.

He glanced down at where his feet were, and smirked back up at me. "Do I really strike you as someone so irresponsible as to drive without shoes? Really, now."

Smothering a growl, I sighed, getting fed up. "Look, are you gonna pay me or what? Because I swear if you don't in ten seconds, I'll tell my boss you verbally harassed me and then refused to pay. I have your license plate number on this security camera; if you're over eighteen, you might even go to jail."

He chuckled, much to my further frustration. What, did everything amuse him? "Lucky for me I'm not, then," he said, reaching into the cup holder next to him and pulling out a five dollar bill. He handed it to me, smug in his movements.

Good God, I wanted to strangle him.

"Thank you," I said icily, eyes narrowed. I snatched it from his hand, and opened my rarely-used cash register, pulling out two one dollar bills from yesterday. The worst is when you don't have change because not enough people pay in cash, so you have to pull change from your own wallet, which only holds up the line.

He took his change with a large grin. "I'm Wyatt, by the way."

I knew he was expecting me to say something back—most likely introduce myself as well (something I had no intention of doing, rest assured)—but at that moment, Lady Luck finally shined upon me.

Another car was heading straight for my lane, a fact I saw Wyatt noticed with a quick glance in his rearview mirror. Without time to wait for me to respond (which was probably going to be me telling him to fuck off), he saluted and sped off into the direction of the city.

I don't know why, but I almost expected the other car to stop like Wyatt had. Not that I'd actually enjoyed dealing with him, but it was still a change of pace I was almost grateful for and he had been right about one thing: nobody ever talked to me when I worked. People rarely even paid by hand.

But instead, the car zoomed past me, beeping its hello and goodbye at the same time.

At seven AM, I clocked out and headed for the station wagon, shoving my finished math homework into my backpack. I fumbled with the keys as I tried to get the car started. It sometimes stalled once or twice before actually the engine would actually start. "Come on…" I pleaded. I was running late as it was; if the car died on me, I'd really be screwed.

I had spaced in the middle of a math problem for a good twenty minutes, which lost me precious time and had me scrambling to finish before I rushed to school, and then my replacement was late in coming, so I had to wait until he arrived before I was able to leave.

"About time," I muttered as the car's engine finally purred with life. My high school was all the way at the end of East Clover, and traffic was starting to pick up, which meant I probably had half in hour on the road. I hoped I would be able to make it for my seven-thirty bell; Mama always got real mad when I was late to school.

("If you're gonna work such crazy hours, Andrea," she'd scold, "you better damn make sure you get your butt to school on time. Or you'll go back to working the afternoon shift, you hear me?")

I hastily pulled into the school's parking lot, not caring how much the car was at an angle in my parking space as I darted to my first period. I stepped into math class with my homework in my hands right as the bell rang.

The teacher gave me a look, but I was one of the few students who actually paid attention in class, so I knew he wouldn't do anything to me except shake his head. "Please take a seat, Ms. McKee," he said, stifling a sigh.

Later in the period, he asked me to collect the homework for him while he graded our tests. Out of a class of thirty, I held about fifteen sheets of paper in my hands when I walked up to Mr. Cartel. "Here you go, sir," I said, handing him the small stack.

If possible, his expression withered even more. "Thank you, Andrea." His voice was small and tired. He marked something on a test he was grading, circling it with a red pen. "And here you are," he said, handing me the test.

My heart fell as I saw the grade—a D? I had studied really hard. Mama had even helped me make flash cards. Sensing my distress, Mr. Cartel leaned in closer, voice dropping just above a whisper.

"Andrea, you are a very bright girl. You pay attention in class and always seem to do the homework, which is a lot more than I can say for your peers. You have a C-plus in my class now, but that's still very good for someone who doesn't like math very much." I opened my mouth to protest (despite the fact it was very true), but he cut me off with a chuckle and knowing grin. I always liked Mr. Cartel. "But you don't have to like it to get an A. I can find you a tutor, if you would like…I've got a nephew who is excellent at math. The semester isn't over yet; there's still time to pull your grade up."

I swallowed hard as the bell rang, signaling the period was over. I'd never had a tutor before; I'd never been able to afford it. The thought that I still wouldn't be able to struck me, but I was going to be late to my second class (which was all the way on the other side of the building), so I nodded and thanked him, hurrying out the door.

If you didn't know, the song by the Mountain Goats is called "This Year" and it's amazing. John Darnielle fronts the band. If you like Neutral Milk Hotel or indie music, you'll probably like them. If you haven't heard of Neutral Milk Hotel, check them out, too.

Anyway, hen I say it's a short story, I mean short story! Sally Can Wait, my amazing and funny and lovely beta (this story would not be here if not for her, seriously) calls it a 4-shot, as there are four chapters (plus an epilogue, which I may or may not include in the final chapter) but I prefer to call it a short story. So nyah! -sticks tongue out-

Whatever you want to call it, it doesn't matter. This story was spawned one day as I was driving into the city. As I passed through the toll booth with our prepaid thing, called Fastrak here, I saw the booth worker looking utterly bored/pissed off. BAM! Story.

Inspiration always hits at the most annoying of times--I'm supposed to be studying for finals, for Heaven's sake!--but I couldn't shake it. So I wrote this. It's already finished, but the sooner you review, the sooner I'll update. :P

Maybe not. Or maybe I'm just that mean. Well, why risk it? ;D

xoxo Sarah