I still remember the first time I saw Marni. It was my grandparents' 50th anniversary party. Her hair was done up in pink ribbons, her lacy, white dress slightly too big for her small frame and shoes too white and crisp to remain that way on a six-year-old. She had the same bright, dimpled smile as her mother, Dolores. The next time I saw her was more than a year later at my uncle Andrew's cabin. There were no ribbons that time. No lace, no smiles, no Dolores. Just a girl with eyes swollen red and a heavy shadow looming down on her.
"I don't see why we need to be here," I said, turning to my mother as she ushered me through the door. "You said we could shop for my dress this weekend." I knew I was whining, but I didn't care. Apparently she didn't either.
"Prom isn't for another month yet." She didn't even look at me as she dropped her purse in the corner and ran her hands over her floral dress to smooth it. She'd forgotten to do the ironing again, I noticed.
"It's one weekend, Evelyn. We're here to show our support. Besides, your cousin Marni is here. She could really use a friend right now – another girl. Such an awful thing…"
I didn't know Marni. I didn't know Dolores. In fact, my mother had been estranged from her sister since before I was born. Why did she think it was her duty to care now? Why did she think it was mine? I wanted to tell my mother exactly that, but she disappeared in a flurry of floral down the hall and out the porch doorway with the other adults before I could protest. I didn't follow her. I knew what they were talking about out there.
Instead, I trudged over to the small living room and plopped down on the sofa. The leather was sticky from the afternoon heat, and the room was uncomfortably quiet. There were bears everywhere. The wallpaper, the knickknacks, even the glass end tables were supported by little bear cubs. Gross. I frowned and pulled out my phone.
"What are you doing?"
I looked up. Marni sat hunched in the corner with her legs folded beneath her. Her blond hair was pulled back harshly in a ponytail and her tiny fingers fisted into the hem of her denim skirt. She looked through me without ever really seeing me, like I was some specter on another plane and she could just barely catch a glimpse of me. I never wanted to be looked at like that again.
"Nothing," I replied and went back to my phone.
"Was that your mom in the flower dress?" Why did she keep talking to me?
"Oh," she whispered distantly. "She's pretty. She looks like my mom. Except her dress was wrinkly. I never saw my mom in a wrinkly dress."
"She's just busy. She has two jobs."
"Where's your dad?" she asked. I tensed, but kept my gaze locked onto my phone. I'd been staring at the same text message since I sat down. It wasn't a long message.
"Oh. I thought maybe he was like my mom."
"Well, he's not," I snapped. She grew quiet then, and I was glad.
The next morning I went for a walk in the wooded area behind the cabin. Breakfast had been a somber affair and I'd needed to escape. I was still wearing my pajama bottoms and tee shirt. It was early yet, but it was already humid. My dark hair was sticking to my forehead, and I almost wished I'd taken the time to put it up. There was no wind, just stale, hot, humid air. I sighed and kept walking, listening to the birds chatter. That's when I saw her: Marni, just standing perfectly still and unreachable among the trees like the spirit of the woodland.
I wanted to turn around and leave, to escape, but I could tell by the tilt of her head that she'd heard my approach already. I didn't go any closer; I didn't want to. I just stood there awkwardly, tugging at my shirt like I do when I'm nervous. But she was staring at something on the ground and she made no move to acknowledge me.
"What are you doing?" I asked, the same question she'd asked me the day before. Even in the heat she shivered, but she didn't speak. I didn't care how uncomfortable I was; I didn't like being ignored. I marched right up alongside her and repeated the question. I didn't need to.
A baby robin lay in the dirt. I was struck by how small it was, sparse tufts of gray fluff only recently sprouted from translucent skin, wide beak and large round eyes overbearing on its miniature body, and flimsy legs that twitched erratically. It was the twitching that stopped my breath.
"I bet she fell out of her nest," I said, crouching next to the bird. I ran my finger along the dirt beside it, too afraid to touch something so fragile. I felt Marni scrutinizing my every move. "Such a calamity. I wonder if there's something we can do," I offered uncertainly. She seemed doubtful as well. I pulled my phone out of my pajama pocket.
"Are you calling the doctor?" the little girl asked, mouth set too tight and serious for someone so young.
"No," I replied. "It's a smartphone. Trust me, it knows everything. I'm checking the Internet. If I can get a signal out here…"
"What does it say?" Her voice was eager now, desperate even.
"I don't know; give it a second… Okay, we need a warm towel."
"I have a scarf," Marni offered innocently, tugging a Hello Kitty scarf from around her neck. I shrugged my shoulders.
"I guess that'll work. Then, if we can't find the nest or the mother, we'll bring her inside. It says to keep her warm and put her in a box with moist paper towels."
Marni plopped down on her bottom, white shorts and all, and gently lifted the bird with the scarf. She was the epitome of caution as I helped her to her feet and she slowly led the way back up the path with her arms outstretched. We found an old shoebox in a closet, black pumps still inside. Dolores's shoebox, I thought. I tugged at my shirt. Marni, however, wasn't fazed in the least. She tossed the shoes back in the closet, carefully rested the chick in the box, and ran to the bathroom for some wet towels.
"Now what?" she asked when her task was completed. I peered into the box. I could see the rise and fall of the chick's tiny torso. That was good.
"Keep her warm," I guessed. Marni gasped suddenly, mouth dropping open in exaggerated alarm and posture going rigid.
"Daddy has the air conditioning on!"
I smiled a little: "Tell him to turn it off."
She was gone in a flash.
Andrew and my mother were outside that evening, barbecuing. I sat at the dining room table doing my math homework while I still had the chance, and Marni sat beside me with her shoebox clutched tightly to her chest. She'd hovered over it for hours, and so had I.
"Do you think Calamity will be okay?" she asked. I dropped my pencil.
"Calamity? Is that what you're calling her?" I tried not to sound amused, but I was.
"Isn't that what you called her before?" she reasoned. "Your Mom gave me an eyedropper in case we wanted to feed her."
"Not too much," I warned. "That's what my phone said." I reached for the box. Marni hesitated, but handed it over. Somehow we'd reached a mutual trust over the care of this chick, and I knew no one else would have been able to take that box from the girl. She pushed the eyedropper into my hands as well, pleading silently with me to save Calamity from…calamity. It was too late. The bird wasn't breathing.
We buried Calamity in the front lawn after dinner. Andrew dug the hole while Marni and I watched with tears streaming down our stinging, red faces. I had wanted to save that bird too, needed it. For Marni or for me, I didn't know. I saw my mother out of the corner of my eye, flustered floral trying to comfort Marni with a series of aborted gestures. Marni ignored her.
"My mother died too. She had cancer," a tiny voice finally spoke up beside me.
"I know." What else was there to say? Suddenly, I felt a pressure in my pocket as my phone was fished out by a tiny hand and shoved harshly against my side.
"Why did she die?"
I wasn't sure if she was talking about Calamity or her mother anymore, but I suppose the question was the same either way. Slowly, I grasped my phone, stared blankly at it for a long moment, and turned it off.
"I don't know," I said. I expected Marni to burst into hysterics at my admission, afraid I'd shattered our tentative bond. I couldn't be like my mother. I couldn't comfort her, couldn't offer her meaningless platitudes, couldn't give her answers I didn't have. But she just took my hand in hers and really looked at me for the first time since I'd met her.
"Me neither," she said with a relieved sigh. Because in that moment, we were the same.