Bill, as the town referred to him, would leave at 7:30am sharp. He would trot down his self-laid pink and white bricks toward the street where he liked to park. He’d garnished his walk with bluebonnets and, in this perfect April, their amazing violet hue twinkled against his home’s sensitive light blue paint. A swing remained in his young oak, from the days of having a toddler. Inside, a thousand trinkets rested on shelves, and in a few curios, but mostly in hidden corners of their lives. In the attic almost out of memory’s reach, every picture a young Caitlyn had drawn in school now aged in dusty chests.
They sat in a small dining room space nestled into a large window. The sunrise in the open Texas sky was beautiful and inviting. Caitlyn watched the sun creep over the neighboring homes more and more, promising freedom in just twenty minutes. The table was quiet, and she sat texting her boyfriend Steve on her cellphone. She was nearly eighteen, and he was twenty-one. He had a car, and other privileges of adulthood. She raised her eyes to the plate, bowl of apples, and magazines before her. Bill looked up from some printout he studied for work, and gave a half smile while chewing in silence. She faked the same smile, got up and turned toward the bathroom. “You going to school today?” Her father asked as soon as her back was to him. She spun around with crossed arms but no eye contact, and simply shrugged. Bill set down his fork and pushed his food and coffee away calmly. “Do you know how many calls I get from the school?” He made his point before she could start pretending he was invading on her private bathroom time. “Caitlyn, it’s embarrassing and, strange to have my daughter provoking the public. It’s…I’m just at a loss when some soccer mom who thinks her perfect family of five is superior, back talks me on a traffic stop about my family life. They think they can undermine law enforcement, they suddenly think we’re a news story.” He waited a moment on some kind of reply. Uncomfortable, she offered a few words, “I get it Dad…” and turned away again, hoping he would keep allowing her to walk away. She disappeared into the bathroom, and continued texting into her cellphone. Steve would arrive in ten or fifteen minutes now, so they could hang out before Caitlyn went to school.
Caitlyn’s presence was scarce at school. A slow morning kissing and smoking behind the garage, followed by a late ride to school from Steve, was all she’d yet accomplished. She avoided Ms. Holbrook’s hall completely, and slid tardy into second period only to meet the scary glances of Mr. Hughes. By noon, Caitlyn’s friend Wendy had everyone they knew invited to a party. Amazingly, from one class to another, at lockers, over the P.A. system if she could have, she’d planned the whole thing. Skipping lunch and third period, Caitlyn sat in an echoing restroom waiting to ride over to Wendy’s house. Steve was working and not answering her texts, and by now Wendy was waiting to get out of third. The cold tiles of the bathroom wall bore all the promises of last years couples. Together forever, Jess + Ben, and I love Luke S. remained, the swearers now in some other time and place. They made Caitlyn’s stomach light, and she thought about Steve. His blue eyes made the scruffiness of his face seem harmless, and his jeans ripped at the knees, the way he walked and talked, all made him look afraid of nothing, comfortable with the world. She wanted to get out there. He was just a taste of it. Out from some wild corner of the world he’d ended up in the same corner shop buying the same kind of smokes. Before she could imagine her way out of the bathroom and into a wedding chapel, Wendy came marching in and tossed a makeup bag down into a dry sink. She wore light, worn jeans, and a tight red top with the face of a metal rock singer performing on it. Her hair was black, cut choppy, and arrow straight. She started filling the gloss in on her dry lips, blotting away oil and reapplying a powdery cover. Through the mirror she glanced at Caitlyn. “You have anything good to bring tonight?” Caitlyn shook her head. “You know I can’t get my hands on a single thing, but I wanted to ask Steve. I know he’ll want to come, and I’m coming straight over, don’t need to take me home. Have to take off by 10:45, keep my dad at bay and make the stupid curfew.” Wendy shrugged, “Whatever, just checking.” Caitlyn blew air out of her chest and smirked. “As long as you take to walk out of a class, I could have just walked to your house.” Wendy put her things away and picked up her bag. “Okay then, go ahead.” They laughed, and then hushed each other. They whisked down the corridors like silent butterflies chasing sunlight, giggling and swinging their hair. Caitlyn lit up and took a puff of freedom, blew it out of the passenger side of Wendy’s car, and turned the radio up.
After raiding the fridge and the nice master bath of Wendy’s parents, Caitlyn, Wendy and some other girls had their clothes changed, hair and nails done, and were all set for the night. Caitlyn flipped through television channels waiting. As the fourth guy showed up at Wendy’s door, Caitlyn switched off the television and started up some music. Then she took her feet off of the ottoman and scooted down to the corner of the couch to make room for people. Everyone started off on a couch, or standing in a corner, pretending to like the same music, stiff and quiet. She bounced her leg, crossed over the other, enjoying the music. Though she didn’t give any guys around the house even a second look, one in a Polo shirt sat like a benched athlete onto the ottoman facing his friends on the couch. After a quick hello to them, he turned to Caitlyn. “How’s life? Got rid of the uncle in the white Ford yet?” She grinned in a sarcastic sort of way, kept bouncing her foot to the music and flicked her lighter a couple of times. “Didn’t mean to sound rude, hey.” He turned from his buddies to her, and sounded softer now. “Come dance for a minute. Don’t take it wrong, I think you’re cute.” Caitlyn looked up from her nails with only her eyes. “No. Thanks.” The Polo’s eyes flashed regret for just a second, but then he stood up with a sigh and walked away coolly. She flipped open her cell and dialed. There was no answer. She texted. Hey babe you headed over yet? See you in a few, I hope.
Wendy’s black hair ceased bouncing to the music and she zipped over and plopped down on the ottoman. Wendy, with her mouth open, looked at Caitlyn. “Got a problem with our quarterback?” She handed Caitlyn a beer. “I do, actually. Stupid, cheesy little child.” Wendy looked offended while trying to still seem bubbly. “Wow Cait, he’s your age. What’s wrong with a little bit of cheesy, our age fun, huh? Gonna just let Steve make you an old woman already?” Wendy laughed a little yelp out loud and got back up, Caitlyn’s expression not really amused with all of the Steve-bashing. She almost wished he wouldn’t show, but then remembered how late he was. She started walking past the windows. Everyone was dancing, but she paced. The night finally crept into the windows and cooled the crowded air. She saw a white Ford stop on the street, so she headed into the yard, lighting a cigarette on the way across the lawn. She blew out the smoke without enjoying it. “Been a long time Steve, where were you?” Steve stepped down and threw his own cigarette off into Wendy’s yard. He put his arm around Caitlyn and started walking up to the house, swaying his head to the music. Caitlyn’s hard face softened slowly, just enough before going back inside so that nobody would notice her irritated expression. “I’ve uh, got to go in like an hour. Can’t just hang all night, don’t know what you were thinking.” She quietly reminded him as they walked through the bodies, cups and noises. He still didn’t give an answer, so she dropped it. He stopped and grabbed a beer and gave it to Caitlyn, and they headed for the couch by the stairs. After a while with his arm around her, complaining about a customer from work, he looked back into the kitchen. “Hey does Wendy have like, whiskey or something for the Coke?” Caitlyn set down her drink. “I’ll check.”
At last, Caitlyn huffed a breath, looking at the clock. She headed for the door, not thrilled with the evening. Crickets sang in the grass as Caitlyn moved out onto the patio. Steve followed, leaving his drink and trying to keep up. They swayed a little to the natural music and then she could see his brows starting to cave a little. “Hey aren’t you happy I came to hang with your friends? Come on Cait, it’s a curfew, not a law.” She tried to scoff and laugh a little. “Yeah well I don’t need more heat, I already don’t do my homework.” Steve looked back inside a second. “Come upstairs with me a minute then, just, so we can have some privacy, so I can kiss you goodnight.” Caitlyn stepped up on her toes, kissed Steve and shook her head. His eyes held no regret, and they weren’t understanding. He blew air out of his chest, dropped her hands out of his own, and walked back inside. Caitlyn presumed he was going to just drink more, as he was headed to the kitchen. She didn’t wait on him to remember to offer her a ride home, he was mad. She’d said no to upstairs a few times. She thought he should get it by now, besides, they would have plenty of time for all of that later.
Caitlyn walked as best as she could to get the few blocks home from Wendy’s. She figured she didn’t need a ride at this distance anyway. The cool air took the weight off her feet and she swayed downward. She took a seat in some cool grass, thinking she should sober up a little before possibly seeing her dad. Still, the world only tilted a little further on it’s shaky axis. She grabbed her head in her hands and tried to steady things, but time was passing, she wasn’t sure how much. She got back on her feet and passed a few more houses. She wondered how a few drinks could hit her just like that. She knew she couldn’t be seen like this but she just needed to make it to her bed. She needed to be quiet when she got there, and make it up the stairs, make it deep into her pillow. Pillows. She melted into that thought for a moment. She had plush, huge body pillows that cradled her without expecting anything in return, and her comforter was a slab of warmth, waiting to hug and nurture her turning stomach back to sleep. What a sour grape Steve was.
If only she could get home, but she was not moving anymore. She couldn’t do anything but smell the clean grass. It was cool and a little moist. It was not her pillow, but she may never see that again, she silently feared in her mind. She was cheek-to-the-ground and not going anywhere. She welcomed what comfort the grass gave, and the leaves in an oak whooshing overhead at least singing to her at a time like this. A soft fresh smell began settling over her. Without the ability to show a single concern, she lost the world around her. It disappeared totally into the night.
A knock on Bill’s door sent him out of his chair. He wasn’t asleep, but sitting right in the kitchen waiting for Caitlyn to miss curfew. An old neighbor, Henry, stood there looking scared. “Uh, Bill. You might want to come out here.” Henry backed away and pointed into the yard. “I shook her, she won’t wake up. Smells like beer, looks like a party.” Bill ran to Caitlyn and checked her pulse and breathing right away. For only a second his eyes glared down the street, wondering who dropped his baby girl here, why, and after doing what to her.
Suddenly Caitlyn was dimly aware of flashes of lights and the sounds of a thousand strangers. “Cait, come on, wake up. Listen, can you have it cleaned out, pumped? I don’t know what it is, but I won’t have it damaging her.” The frantic man hovered over her and his hands rested on her, protecting her. All of the lights, the noises, they battered against her ears. Sometimes she couldn’t tell if she was hearing a hospital or some of the party, if she was dreaming or awake, dying or just panicking. A woman grabbed her arm, and she knew there would be a bruise from the pinch. The frantic man mumbled things at her. The woman calmly walked back and forth, grabbing tools and doing her job around his panic. “Look Bill, I know you’re alarmed, but there’s not much to do. She’ll be all right. Come to this side here, if you could hold this… thanks. Listen, we’ll bring over a kit and make sure…” The voice trailed off.
A slowness came over it all, and a quiet blanket came over her head and hushed everything. It turned warm, and then it was tucked up under her chin, soothing and bringing back her control. The sounds only echoed now, from some other time. A familiar smell colored in her silent white with violet, and blue, and a swing moved in the wind in front of a little house. She finally peeked her eyes open, and slowly took hold of the cold, quiet things around her in the dark hospital. The clock said 5:20am. She got up fairly easily and found a light switch. Under a vase filled with bluebonnets, her father sat slumped in a chair across the room. His clothes looked uncomfortable, he had one shoe untied, and he’d run his hands through his hair at least a hundred times. It was oily and wild. Somehow, she felt safe and loved as he slept there not seeing or hearing her.
The dread of memory washed over her. Party. Walking home. Tipsy became drowsy. Drowsy became fully not able to walk. Then, she was in a hospital? She was in huge trouble. A second of heartbreak stung through her chest, arms and into her limp hands. Steve. She was going to kill him. It was fine if her father slept another twelve hours, she welcomed his refreshed state when she had to deal with this. She stared at the wall a moment, and her brow got tighter. She breathed, and breathed without control, comprehending. “I almost… if I hadn’t…” She hyperventilated and stumbled, lightheaded into the bathroom. Bill woke to the sound of her gagging and crying all at once, and he went over to hold her. She finished and sat back against the tiles and hung her head. He didn’t react the way she expected. He hugged her and smiled. “You came home kid. Everybody said you shook your head no and just came home. I love you Cait, you’ve got to be careful. I, I just love you.” Caitlyn could hardly think of anything worthwhile to say. “I could just kill Steve.” Her father squeezed her tighter. “Well, simmer down, he got beat up just about what he deserved in his own accident last night. Went off and drove drunk right after you walked home in your condition.” Bill sighed, thankful for his daughter’s luck. “I don’t even know if he’ll walk again on those torn up legs he came in here with. God, I just don’t understand why 21 is supposed to mean drinking, drugs, stupidity, rebellion...” Caitlyn looked down. She took a deep breath and let her father talk. She was embarrassed to even know Steve, and as her father complained about the out-of-place predator at a teen party, she turned her head to the familiar smell in the room. Beautiful bluebonnets set upon the table made her want to be back. At the end of a pink and white brick path, looking at a little blue house with a useless baby swing hanging from an oak tree, sounded just about perfect right now. She never realized how comforting it really was. In her hospital bed waiting for some doctor to come along and formally discharge her, she thought of her own pillows and blankets, the quiet, safe home she couldn’t get back to last night.
At home, conversation was hard to come by again, though she and Bill respected and smiled with one another a little more. Caitlyn finished dinner and went up into her room to pull out some textbooks she hadn’t touched in about two months. Bill had called her counselor to arrange some help before she failed. She looked at the government text with dread. It would take a miracle to catch up on lessons she’d ignored for so long. First she needed to reorganize some things. She picked up her texts from the bottom of her closet, and pulled out a suitcase from under where they had been stacked. She listened towards the door for a second and made sure she had her privacy. She looked back down to the suitcase, opened the zippers one by one and unpacked. Clothes, cigarettes, pictures of her and Steve, computer printouts of how to get a marriage license, work-at-home ideas for wives, maps of Colorado about a thousand miles away; she undid it all. “Stupid, stupid little child,” she threw her things back into drawers, ripped up papers and pictures, and paused for a second, sparing only the smokes. She sighed, “Baby steps I guess.”
On Monday at school, she avoided Wendy, not really wanting to hear remarks or be asked questions. She had to meet a tutor after lunch, some student with high marks who had spare time and energy to help pathetic slackers to pass. Her counselor, Ms. Watts, motioned her into the room and smiled. “For Economics, where you struggle the most and might fail, I’ve got the perfect young man to get some main points together and help you break them down more effectively each week. Take a seat, he’s coming in a minute.” Great, Ms. Watts found a perfect young man. Caitlyn expected some overachieving nerd in glasses to come in and start annoying her with a high-pitched voice. She’d hardly sat down before the door opened and the punctual, clever tutor plopped down next to her with a vindicated smile.
“Hi Cait. I never told you, my name’s Greg. I really didn’t mean to be so cheesy before, hope you can forget about that.” The quarterback was smart after all, and she’d called him stupid. She felt a little foolish, but laughed and shook his hand. “Oh that’s okay, hope you can forget how rude I was.” He took a sheet of paper from Ms. Watts. “Hope you’re ready to spend a bit of time on some of this. Wow.” Caitlyn looked fearfully at the paper for a moment, but then smiled in a relieved way. “Yeah I’m ready, nowhere to go, no extravagant plans anytime soon.”