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"Um, Jess? No offense, but that hat?" Alice mock-shuddered. "So last year."
Jess reached up and touched her hat, smiling ruefully at Alice. "I know, I know. But it was so cold this morning when I ran out of the house, and I left my good one in my locker at school."
"I always buy two of everything," pronounced Pria. "That way I have a spare."
Kayla, who was picking her way along the icy sidewalk a step behind the other three girls, furrowed her brow. She liked Jess's hat. It was a dusty rose color with a folded-up brim that set off Jess's delicate features and wide-set green eyes. But Kayla would never dream of piping up and disagreeing with Alice. No one wanted to invite Alice's criticism if they could help it. Kayla wondered if Pria was serious about buying two of everything. Like that would ever happen in Kayla's house. She glanced down at her winter boots, which were very definitely so two years ago. Her mom had found them last year at an end-of-season clearance sale, and Kayla had been delighted with them.
"Brrrr!" said Jess, hunkering deeper into her luxurious down coat. "It must be negative a hundred degrees today. Probably a record low for Fairbridge, Minnesota."
"Even Buttercup looks like he feels cold, which is a miracle considering all the natural insulation that dog has," said Alice, gesturing to the dog at the end of the rhinestone-studded leash she was holding in her gloved hand. "My mom says she's going to put him on a diet."
"It's the wind," said Kayla. "That's what makes it feel so cold."
As if to emphasize Kayla's point, an icy gust of crystallized snow sprang up and swirled around the girls. All four put their heads down to shield their faces against the needlelike blast. Kayla could feel the icy snow blowing down the back of her coat collar and up her coat sleeves, which were getting a little too short for her.
"Buttercup! Slow down, you dumb dog!" said Alice, lunging forward from the force of the dog's tugging. Buttercup kept straining at his leash.
Kayla usually liked dogs, but Buttercup had to be the ugliest dog she'd ever seen, and he was not especially friendly, either. His snout was all pushed in, as though he had run face-first into a glass patio door. His tail curled up and around backward, so that it practically formed a circle. He didn't walk so much as he waddled, his round belly shifting from side to side. Alice had told her that he was a very rare and valuable breed. Whatever.
Pria adjusted her fuzzy pink earmuffs. "Please tell me why we're out here again?"
"I'm behaving like the model citizen," said Alice with a half smile. "I've offered to walk Buttercup every single afternoon so my parents will stick to their promise to let me have the party."
"It's so awesome that you're going to have a coed Valentine's party," said Pria.
"Yeah, I'm psyched. The girls get to sleep over, and the boys will all leave at eleven," said Alice.
"Will you guys help me find a cute party outfit at the mall today?" asked Jess.
"I'm going to buy at least three outfits," said Alice, ignoring Jess's question. "Then I'll be able to choose whatever I'm in the mood for on the day of the party."
"Speaking of shopping," said Pria, "have you noticed the stores on this block? I mean, who shops here? Especially considering there's a perfectly good mall nearby."
"Clearly no one, from the looks of these places," said Alice with a sniff.
Kayla clutched the collar of her coat and looked up, squinting as another blast of icy wind sprang up.
It was true. For a generally swanky town like theirs, this seemed to be the one-block-long low-rent district. It was doubly strange that such a run-down block existed in this part of town, of all places, because Alice lived just four blocks away, on one of the fanciest streets in Fairbridge.
They passed an antique store, with a dimly lit storefront displaying a jumble of threadbare old armchairs that looked like they'd seen much better days. Next door was a discount clothing store called Dressed Best, displaying mannequins with no heads or hands, modeling unfashionable dresses. And just past that was a shop with a sign reading ESOTERICA: SPIRITUAL SUPPLIES CANDLES OILS SPELLS. The snow on the sidewalk seemed undisturbed in front of the shops, as though no one had gone in or out in some time.
"Buttercup! I told you to stop pulling, you awful little thing," said Alice. "After thousands of dollars of obedience training, he's still the most annoying dog!" She lurched as Buttercup bounded forward, barking his head off at something the girls couldn't see, something behind the recessed door of the dress shop.
"It's a cat," said Pria.
Just then Buttercup managed to slip out of his collar, leaving Alice holding the empty leash. He moved much more quickly on his short legs than Kayla would have thought he could, dashing toward the doorway and yapping furiously.
A black cat streaked across the sidewalk, heading toward the road. Kayla watched, stricken, as it leaped over the mound of plowed, grayish snow and into the road, just as an oncoming car was passing. The cat landed right in front of the car, and the girls couldn't see whether one of the car's tires rolled over it. The driver, a man talking on his cell phone, kept going, apparently unaware of what had happened.
Buttercup struggled to mount the ploughed snowbank, still in pursuit of the cat, and Alice was able to grab him and snap his collar back on. Then she peered over the edge of the snowbank at the place where the cat had fallen.
"Is it dead?" Jess called to Alice in a small voice.
"Maybe," Alice replied grimly.
The other three girls moved closer to look, peering fearfully over the snowbank.
The cat lay unmoving in a pile of slush.
"Let's get out of here," said Alice. "I so don't need to deal with this right now."
"But what about the cat?" asked Kayla, staring down at it in horror.
"It was probably just a stray," said Jess. "I agree. Let's go."
"It's wearing a collar," Kayla pointed out.
"Come on," said Alice. "My mom said she'd take us to the mall as soon as we got back, and it's freezing out here."
The other two girls turned to follow Alice. Kayla stood there. "I'm going to check on the cat," she said. "I'll catch up to you in a minute."
Alice scowled. "Whatever. But hurry up. I can't guarantee that my mom will wait very long."
Kayla watched the other three girls hurry away through the swirling, misting snow. After making sure no cars were coming, she stepped gingerly over the snowbank and looked down at the cat. Its body lay stretched out, its head facing her, its limbs sprawled in an awkward, uncatlike way.
She was afraid to touch it. Was it breathing, or was that just the wind stirring its fur? She crouched down. "Sorry, kitty," she whispered. "I'm sorry about that dumb dog."
She saw no blood, thank goodness, but then, it would be awfully hard to see blood on a coal-black cat like this one. She grew more certain that it was dead. She looked up at the row of stores. Was anyone looking out the window? Even if they were, they wouldn't be able to see the cat's body, which would be hidden by the bank of snow. She saw no one. She stared back down at the cat.
"I wonder what your name was," she said sadly. And then, as if to answer her, its eyes flew open.