Conflict of Interest

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PROLOGUE

How was it possible that the sound of her mom and dad arguing from the kitchen made it all the way up the stairs, through her closed door on the opposite end of the house, and over the sound of Tom Petty blaring on her radio?

Casey slid off the side of her bed and wedged herself between its sturdy white wooden frame and the blue paisley-patterned wallpaper, then covered her head with a pillow to drown out the screaming voices. The muffled tantrums barely made their way through the feathers, but somehow they crept in.

Ian and Linette Saunders were having one of their bad nights, filled with endless yelling and blaming. Average nights were filled with silence at the dinner table, followed by the nightly news or one of the two shows they actually agreed upon (Law and Order or Survivor–it didn’t escape Casey both shows usually displayed some form of torture).

Good nights were a rare occurrence, but when her mom had a work event or dinner out with friends, there was a sense of normalcy–happiness even. She would talk to her dad about her day over a box of steaming pizza and she’d get to pick the TV show or game they played.

Casey lowered the pillow and let her eyelids close as she leaned her head against the wall. She could sit there for hours trying to block out the strained voices of her parents. Or, she thought, she could escape.

She pushed herself up using the side of her bed and the window frame, then crawled across the bed to the cordless phone on her nightstand and dialed. With every ring she sent up a silent prayer, please be home, please pick up.

“Hello?”

Casey felt herself relax when she heard the calming sound of Raymond Thomas’ voice answer her call.

“Hi, Mr. Thomas, it’s Casey.”

Casey cringed as her mom’s screech reached through the phone, only to be outmatched seconds later by the booming sound of her father’s retort.

“Hi Case, are you looking for Grace?”

“I am.”

Casey could hear the smile in Raymond’s tone as he said, “Let me run and grab her, she’s just finished with her homework. I’m sure she’s ready for a friend.”

“Thanks, Mr. Thomas.”

The sound of footsteps and Grace mocking her brother–that she had a phone call and William hadn’t received a call from Rachel yet–had Casey grinning in spite of her parents’ anger echoing throughout the house. They both knew their friend Rachel was more in love with William then she imagined Romeo and Juliet had been with each other, but that didn’t stop them from giving Grace’s brother crap every chance they got.

“Case!” Grace happily sang into the phone, but the happy left as soon as she heard the background. “Oh no. They’re at it again.”

Grace didn’t have to question what was going on anymore. She knew from years of experience her friend’s parents would fight for hours. Their seemingly unlimited ammunition had the ability to take them straight through the night.

“At it again,” Casey confirmed, and looked at her door. Over the years her feelings during her parents’ epic fights had changed from sadness to irritation. Irritation was easier, but she also felt it changing her. With the sadness, she held onto hope. With irritation, she became closed off and distant. Her guard was constantly up, and she slowly let the idea that she would be alone for the rest of her life harden in her mind. She would keep her friends close, but love and life with a man, a partner with whom she was supposed to commit her life to, would never happen for her. She wouldn’t let it.

Not if this is what happened when you did, she thought to herself grimly as she listened to her mother’s voice rise in a crescendo of bitterness.

“Do you want to come over? Dad already said it would be okay. Just stay the night and we can get a ride to school with William tomorrow.” Grace’s words caused Casey’s mind to start calculating.

Casey looked at her computer and thought about the work she was going to try and get done tonight. She had finished her homework too, but had plans to hack into her English teacher’s computer to change her grades again. She did not do well on their latest Scarlet Letter paper and had to change that. Subjectivity was hard, facts were more her style.

Anyway, if she thought her parents were mad now, she didn’t want to see them when they found out she got a B. Perfection was a rare topic her parents tended to agree on–when it came to her, that is.

Her thoughts paused as she felt the angry dagger of her mom’s voice pierce her heart as she screamed, “When Casey graduates, I am done!”

“Good riddance,” her father spat, sounding dejected.

The finality in her dad’s response twisted the dagger.

Casey breathed deeply and tried to hold the tears that had welled in her eyes from falling.

“Yes,” she said, a whisper into the phone, “please get me out of here.”

Without a moment of hesitation, Grace replied, “We are on our way. Ten minutes.”

“Thanks, Grace.”

“Anything for you. See you in a few.”

When Casey heard a click and a dial tone she placed the cordless phone back on its base, packed books and binders into her school bag, then shoved in pajamas and an outfit and struggled to close zipper. She took one last look at her computer and decided her grades could wait–or she could sneak onto Grace’s computer when everybody was sleeping.

Casey scrawled a note telling her parents she’d gone to school early knowing they wouldn’t check on her until morning, then looped her book bag around her shoulders, hopped back over her bed, opened the window, and climbed out.

The trellis on the side of the house served the Tuscan-style home her parents had built years earlier well, and it served as an escape for Casey to climb down. Hopping the last two feet onto the front walk, Casey made her way to the end of the driveway to sit on the curb and wait.

The neighborhood was quiet. And though she’d had the thought many times before, she was certain this time the silence had never sounded so good.

Casey knew if she looked back she would see the glow of the kitchen lights and the silhouettes of her parents deep in their argument. So she looked out instead.

The houses were all different. Some craftsman style, some modern, some that looked as if they should be on a New England coastline, or the Italian countryside. Though, most of those had direct access to the lake.

One day, she thought, she was going to own one of those houses. So she could hear nothing but the peaceful sound of water rippling against a lazy beach.

Casey closed her eyes to see if she could hear the lake tonight, but the only sound she heard was an old Jeep engine rumbling closer. She didn’t open her eyes, but it was enough to make her smile.

She was saved.

Before William’s jeep could slow to a stop, Grace jumped out of the passenger side door and ran toward Casey.

Casey felt Grace’s arms wrap around her and couldn’t remember anything that had ever made her feel so safe. William climbed out once he put the Jeep in park and walked around to the embrace, cocooning them both, squeezing so tightly both of the girls laughed and let out squeals as they tried to wriggle free.

Gradually their arms all fell and one by one they filed into the Jeep so William could drive them home.

__

Casey walked into Grace’s room and threw her bag onto the top bunkbed–her bunk. Years ago, Lydia and Raymond Thomas had agreed to put bunkbeds in their house so she and Rachel would have a warm bed to sleep in whenever they stayed the night. If her computer hadn’t been at her parents’ house, she would have moved in with Grace a long time ago. It was more of a home than her parents had even given her.

“I called Rachel,” Grace said as she walked in and closed the door behind. “She’s coming, too.”

Casey eyed Grace and tipped the edge of her mouth up in a grin, not saying a word.

“I know,” Grace responded with a smirk of her own, reading Casey’s mind. “She just wants to see William. But I made her promise no boy time, until after girl time.”

“You’re a real hard-ass, Thomas.”

“Don’t I know it,” Grace said, as she tied her hair into a blonde knot on the top of her head. “So, I’m not going to ask you to start until Rachel gets here, but I am going to ask how you’re doing?”

Casey crawled onto the pink, teal, and purple geometric shapes of Grace’s comforter, and stared at the ceiling. It was a simple question with so many not simple answers. So the easiest answer was, “Fine.” Casey turned her head. “I’m doing fine.”

The doorbell saved Casey from Grace’s narrowed eyes and further explanation–for the time being.

A quick three knocks and a flowery voice sang from the other side of the door. “Hello sexy ladies, anybody in there?”

Casey and Grace stole amused glances at each other before Grace replied, “In here, and ready for you so we can get started.”

Rachel bounded in with flushed pink cheeks and daydream eyes.

“You couldn’t go ten seconds, you’re mush,” Casey said, disgusted. “So much for no boys until after girl-time.”

Rachel floated over to the bed and fell in a spin next to Casey, an act that had Grace laughing.

“How am I supposed to say no when the cutest guy in the world traps me outside for a holy shit make-out session before I can even set one foot in the door?”

Casey ignored Rachel and looked toward Grace. “We’ve lost her. There’s no hope. And, she’s pathetic.”

She is right here,” Rachel said while bumping her hip into Casey. “And you haven’t lost her, she just happens to be in love.” Rachel turned and her face grew serious, “Now, tell us how you’re doing.”

“I-”

“How you’re really doing,” Rachel added, cutting Casey off from her standard ‘I’m fine.’

Casey stared at the ceiling and felt Grace sandwich her next to Rachel, then linked their arms together. She thought about it as the three of them lay in a row.

She was, of all things, confused. Why would two people agree to a life together only to fight all of their time away? How could two people who had at one point in their lives been in love enough to make a vow, dedicating their lives to one another, hate each other so much? When would they see the way they acted toward each other was making their own child feel so unloved?

Casey sighed. “I feel…thankful.” She looked from Grace to Rachel. “Thankful that I have you. Because I know no matter what happens, here, I’m loved. And I’m learning from my parents’ mistakes. I’m never going to get married, no matter how much I think I love somebody, I won’t do that to them or myself.”

Grace stole a sad look at Rachel. They didn’t say anything else, just laid with their arms intertwined, and snuggled in a little closer.

Casey relished the feeling of warmth between the friends she knew she could always count on, and thought, with friends like this, she’d never need a man to marry anyway–she had all the love she needed right here.

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