Caitlin Newbridge twisted the silver necklace that sat against her throat as she looked around the house. It seemed very different now. It was nearly two months since her mother had died, and in less than ten weeks, she would be leaving for college. It was a strange, numb, in-between feeling. The house seemed to echo more now than it had before. While she did miss her mother, Caitlin had so admit that she now had a strange sense of relief. Roberta Newbridge had been severally mentally ill for the last several years, in the throes of a terrible depression, and had finally ended it by taking a handful of sleeping pills, on a cold Wednesday afternoon in mid March.
The bright spot in Caitlin's world was still her stepfather, Frederick. Her mother had married him when Caitlin was eleven, just a year or so before the Depression began to set in more deeply. He was tall, over six feet, and had black hair that he wore fashionably longer than most, it fell around his head in soft inky strands and framed his face perfectly. It was a very handsome face, with beautiful changing eyes that were sometimes gray, hazel, or more blue, depending on the light and how he was feeling. Mood eyes, Caitlin called them. She had learned what nearly all the different shades meant.
Caitlin had a secret. One that she hid deep inside a box at the bottom of her heart. She was in love with Frederick. She had been almost since the beginning. At first she thought that it was just a schoolgirl crush, but it refused to abate, only growing stronger the more Caitlin matured. Soon he wasn't just her protector, he was a man, and she wanted him the way a woman wants a man. The fantasies started off very simple and soft, that he would hold her and take care of her and brush her hair...and then they slowly grew longer and more sexual in tone, she would imagine that when he was holding her he would touch her breasts, slip his hands under the fabric of her bra and play with her nipples, and as she imagined this she would slide her own hand up under her nightgown and pretend that it was him. Caitlin had a lot of secret feelings, ones that she dared not confess to anyone, especially her mother. Roberta got very angry and strange when anything remotely sexual was mentioned, she seemed to be both frightened and affronted by it. She was a twisted cyclone of a woman, all fury and no rationality. Why then she had married a man who was so darkly sensual, Caitlin would never understand. After years of exhausting behaviour, years of absorbing blow after emotional blow and all the while trying to be compassionate, Caitlin had finally given up and accepted the fact that she had been relieved, yes, relieved when she got the phone call explaining that her mother had committed suicide. She'd felt immediately lighter, and had tried not to hate herself for that. When she returned from her friend Jayma's that night, the aura of the house had changed. Her mother's body had been taken away and a dark cloak had been pulled off of the entire space. Caitlin knew that Frederick could feel it too, though his eyes were red from crying, his face looked younger, some of the stress lines had already dissipated and he no longer seemed as though he was carrying an enormous weight inside of him. When she saw him, he pulled her close into an embrace that lasted for a long time, and soothed old wounds.
The funeral was a blur, and then it slid out of her mind, or perhaps Caitlin forced it out. Sometimes when an early summer storm darkened the sky and lashed at the windows, she shivered in reminder of her mother. For her thirteenth birthday, Frederick had given her a silver necklace with a small dragon charm and a crystal. He loved dragons, and so did she. She'd worn it like a talisman for years, and now still when those storms blew up and she felt an old unhappy chill creep over her she held onto it, trying to ward off that familiar darkness. Now, alone in the empty house, she sighed, and the sound echoed. She let go of the necklace, the silver charm falling back down between her breasts. Hearing the front door open, she smiled, and all the clouds of thought fled from her mind. Frederick was home.
''Is it wrong that I sometimes don't miss her at all?'' Caitlin confessed later that night, as she picked at a slice of pizza. This had been chewing at her mind and stomach lately, it was the reason that she had to take so many antacids. Frederick Newbridge sighed and leaned his arms on the marble countertop. He was quiet for a moment before answering. ''No, it's not wrong.''
''Do you miss her?''
''Sometimes. I miss the person that I first met.'' He took a sip of Scotch from the glass tumblr in front of him.
Caitlin nodded in understanding. ''I know what you mean. I have some good memories of her from when I was younger, a few. But...it's just so hard because the bad memories almost completely outweigh the good. I spent so many years walking on eggshells, being terrified of her.''
He nodded sympathetically, taking another sip, his fingers tight around the glass. He'd understood that feeling only too well. ''I know, sweetheart.''
She felt brave now, so she also admitted, ''I...I was so happy when she met you. I felt so much safer with you around.''
In response to this, Frederick gave her a deep look that was hard to read, but it made his eyes bluer. Then he said, ''I'm glad.'' His voice was genuine.
The house was theirs now, and they were finally alone. They had an entire summer looming up in front of them, warm with potential. The heat of the sun and the bloom of the flowers brought a bright cheer to the place, chasing away any lingering vestiges of phantoms or gloom. They both felt alive again. Alive, yet trembling. New, like the beginning of April.
''Are you sure that you don't want to go to prom?'' Frederick asked one Saturday afternoon in mid-April as they sat on the outdoor patio together. ''Isn't it...a rite of passage, or something?''
Caitlin looked up from the book that she was reading and shook her head, trying to hide the flush that was inexplicably creeping across her cheeks. ''Nah, it's not really that important to me. It's just a stupid tradition. Plus, I don't have a date or anything,'' she added in a rush, then ducked her head, her tawny hair spilling across the pages.
''Well, that's just ridiculous,'' he said, in a bright voice. ''Who wouldn't want to go with you?''
She smiled at him, blushing now even more deeply. ''Fine, well, if you really don't want to go, you don't have to. I just want to make sure that you have some nice, normal memories of high school. I know it wasn't easy for you, with Roberta being...the way that she was.'' The glass met his lips again.
''I have nice memories of high school,'' Caitlin told him. That was true, she had. It was one of the few places where she'd felt normal, almost free. ''But...it's basically over. I'm not going to be seeing these people again, probably, we're all going our separate ways so I might as well...prepare for the future rather than trying to squeeze anything else out of the past, don't you think.''
''Well said. You always were an old soul.'' He took another long, burning sip of Scotch, shook his head. ''I'm so damned glad I managed to talk her out of homeschooling you. Remember that shit?''
Oh yes, Caitlin remembered. Her mother was a control freak, and went through a slightly paranoid phase where she was distrustful of everyone in authority, including the school. She had wanted to yank Caitlin out back in the tenth grade, and she had been absolutely terrified that she would go through with it. Cait had begged and pleaded with Frederick not to let her do it. It was her tearful eyes that had done it, green eyes that had welled up and broken his heart apart. That was the moment that he had made a strange kind of unspoken vow to always protect her, always.
''How did you talk her out of it anyhow?''
''It took some work,'' admitted Frederick. ''But it wasn't just me, Dr. Sevini helped too.'' Dr. Sevini had been Roberta's psychiatrist for a long time. He had wanted to have her put in the hospital on more than one occasion but she'd always refused, and they didn't have enough evidence that she was a danger to herself or others to get an involuntary commitment. ''He managed to convince her that she would be taking on too much. It was a close call, though, she really put up a fight about it.''
''She didn't realize how sick she was, did she?''
''Not at first,'' answered Frederick. ''She thought that everyone was out to get her, when really we were all just trying to help. I think, though, as time went on she started to understand. I think that she finally understood at the end. I think that was why.''
She smiled again and turned a page in her book.
He wasn't sure why, perhaps it was the Scotch, or maybe the way the smile curved her pink lips, but Frederick suddenly found himself saying, ''Hey, I have an idea. Since you're too cool for prom, would you like to come to the Gala with me in two weeks? I'm on the board, so I have to go. I was going to go solo, but this might be nice for you. You can talk to some really important bigwigs in the art community, maybe make some lasting connections that could be useful after college.''
Caitlin thrilled at the idea. ''Can I come with you? Really?'' Excited, she jumped up and the book fell off her lap and thudded to the floor.
''Of course, love,'' he replied and she threw her arms around him. They lingered like that for a little too long, but nobody was around to see, except for the roses and the sun.
She smelled like lemon and berries, like a summer day. He longed to kiss her plump lips, to see even more of her creamy skin. The velocity of this desire was overwhelming, and Frederick found himself walking back towards the house, shaking his head as if trying to clear it.