I tell them about the mist that came off the river. How it flattened the grass, then wet my face. Now I mention the meowing: how I figured the sound had blown in from a darkened yard on the opposite bank.
I tell them I couldn't see any cats.
I try to explain how these sorts of sounds—dog whimpering, baby howling, parent sobbing—are at their worst when you can't see the source. Dog behind fence, baby upstairs. Parent on cellphone with sketchy connection.
That awful yowling coming out of the darkness, plus the shushing of the river coming in through the trees.
You know the spot, I say. I know you all do.
First I head to the store, thinking tea, thinking Snickers. The clerk will see my red eyes. I'm not worried about any kind of brush with the law, even in a town that's as tiny as ours. I made sure not to take the Ziploc out with me—it's got a bunch of small holes where the stems have poked through—and I didn't leave it sitting there on top of my dresser. The usual measures had been taken: the folding of the bag into an empty film canister—because, unlike friends who prefer using pill bottles, I value opacity and have come to depend on it—then the placement of the thing in my bottom drawer, under letters, envelopes, photos and post-its, all of which somehow still smell like perfume.
3AM says the sign by the bank.
64 degrees blink the bright yellow bulbs.
Gas pumps glows in the distance. The lot looks empty, and I'm happy to see it. I look down, for a second, at the wet slate shining in the light of the street lamps. Water condenses on streets and sidewalks, but I don't remember anyone ever calling it dew.
Out on the gas station curb is a girl. In high school, we ran cross country together. She doesn't look pregnant, but I've seen the ultrasound she posted on Facebook.
—Hey, I say, how's it going, how are you?
The door's too heavy and dings as I enter. I go down the first aisle, away from the counter. A turn executed with such visible purpose that I feel I should inspect all the shit on the racks: motor oil, Advil, antacids, condoms. Nothing I'd buy. Head at a tilt, cradling my chin between forefinger and thumb, I linger, taking unit prices into account. I wait for the right amount of time to elapse. Then I hit the coolers and grab what I came for.
Outside again, I remember the shortcut: the path snaking in back oft the building, the gap in the hedge, the five-foot drop from the ledge to the lot. I tell myself the detour is due to the weed. To be honest, something more innocent drives me: a memory of what shortcuts had meant as a kid, the comfort of something I could learn and repeat. It goes back to a game I used to play in the car with a friend. We named places from around our hometown—store, office, friend's house, backyard-–and tried to find a place the other hadn't set foot.
—Have you taken a piss in the diner bathroom?
—Yep. You seen the back storeroom, Paint and Paper?
Friend punches my thigh across Nissan's back seat.
—I've got one: County offices, basement level.
—Where the vending machines are?
—We went there years ago. I got the Beef n' Cheese and you made fun of me for it.
Cars slide by that I know by their headlights. Dad cranks down the window, then holds out an apple core, waiting to toss it—
I tell them: I'm leaving the gas station.
Circling mosquitos. Bright roof over pumps.
Dropping to the lot, I hit my feet hard. Mom's voice in my head says try buying shoes with a bit more support. I'm near the courts, shoes crunching on gravel.
It's at this moment that I hear the cats.
I move toward the sound. Soon I'm on grass. My steps become quiet. The ground is uneven, dew soaks through my shoes. The meowing grows louder and so does the river. Water flows black in the gaps between trees. I stop at the shore. To the left, I see something: a man standing out on a half-submerged stone, a sack at his side jostling like microwave popcorn. The meows are coming from inside the sack.
The guy doesn't move. It's like he can't hear all the fear at his side.
He swings the sack gently, forward, then back, and I flinch each time it looks like he'll throw it.
I want to say something. Even more, I want him to.
I'm sorry little guys, but this has to be done.
I didn't have a choice.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.
He leans down and places the sack in the current. Twenty yards apart, we both watch its progress. I'd think the cats might sink, with a trail of bubbles rising up to the surface. Instead they float, the bag drifting toward the center, a pocket of air trapped inside. I lean on a willow. Me on the shore and the sack in the water, the slow current bringing it closer.
Then it passes, all full and alive.
I imagine myself swimming after the sack. The man might see me, he might even laugh. Somehow it'd be like I was running away.
I step in the water, start wading up stream.
—Hey, I shout.
The guy's been scrambling his way up the bank. Now he stops, clutching roots exposed by the water. I expect him to hop up the rest of the way.
—What, the guy yells, what the hell do you want?
His voice is brittle. It quivers and shakes.
I stop where I am. I wanted my voice to scare the guy off.
—Do you know what you've done?
—You don't know me.
I could say the same to you, I think, you don't know me.
The man starts sobbing. I don't say a thing. Branches clack as he scoots up the bank. Judging by his trajectory, he parked by the church. The steeple is glowing. Up on the hill, the college lights—like a parking garage, or a storage facility—stain the sky yellow, suggesting a city. The breeze blows sour, it's familiar and I know it must be one of two things: the rusted bridge, or that pale froth, like the head on a freshly poured beer, which swirls on the water in eddies and pools. Closing my eyes, I wish the current would move me. I stand and wait until I'm numb to the knees. Then I go home.
Ben Sandman, of Delhi, NY, graduated from Vassar College in May with a BA in English and German. For his senior thesis, he wrote a collection of stories. His work is forthcoming in The Susquehanna Review. This story was published in The Allegheny Review and awarded the journal's 2014 prize for prose.