June 23rd 2012…
There are moments that you wish could last forever. And there are moments that you wish were dead and gone. Cassidy didn’t know which this was – the moment she crested the sloping curve of I-80 and laid eyes on Oak Hills again. Whatever it was, the power of the moment struck her like a blow. The town was built for a postcard, nestled in a wooded valley, the tall spire of the largest of the town’s nine churches dominating the skyline.
It was bigger than she remembered, but deceptively so. Houses had sprung up around the outskirts, clawing outward at a rate that she knew would be tightly controlled by the town council. They’d all been designed to spec as well. Double-stand wooden manors, with landscaped lawns and the prerequisite picket fences. The only difference is what colour you painted the fence. White was not a necessity, but definitely encouraged.
The drive from the airport had taken two hours, and Cassidy suddenly realized that it was not nearly enough time to prepare. Keeping her eyes on the road, she flipped open her handbag on the seat beside her, digging through the numerous pockets for a fresh pack of cigarettes. When she found a box of Marlboro’s, she ripped open the plastic coating with her teeth. She used the rented car’s built-in lighter, and sent a plume of thick smoke out the window to disturb the perfectly still air.
The nicotine helped calm the flow of anxiety rising steadily inside her. For six years she’d been avoiding this drive, this road, this vacuum back to the past. Six years spent actively burying every emotion that tied her to the town and its people, because it was far too difficult to separate the good from the bad.
Six years… gone in an instant.
Driving through the streets once she hit town, Cassidy was amazed that a place could change so much, and so little, all at the same time. Mr Henderson’s hardware store was still there, but now boasted an electronic sign to replace the old hand-painted one, and was flanked by a store selling nouveau furniture where Tom’s Barber used to stand. The diner, run by a couple by the name of Harper in Cassidy’s day, had been supplanted by a fast food chain and become one of a million dotting the country. Cassidy doubted the pancakes would be anywhere near as good.
When she turned onto her old block, the number of changes decreased. But instead of settling over her like a warm, familiar blanket, she found the lack of progress sad and maddening.
There was old Mrs. Camden’s house on the corner. She’d had a fancy new remote-controlled gate installed, but the old maple tree still dominated the front garden. Cassidy had chipped her tooth falling out of that tree when she was eight. The mailbox out front of Mr Swan’s yard, shaped like, of all things, a swan, bore a new coat of paint and nothing else. And finally, her parents’ house.
Cassidy had grown up in a two-storey Old-Vic style house, painted white, with green shutters and gables, flanked by a white stud fence, holding back a garden overflowing with rose bushes. The house she pulled into just happened to be: a two-storey Old-Vic style house, painted white, with green shutters and gables, flanked by a white stud fence, holding back a garden overflowing with rose bushes.
Cassidy just sat in the driveway, the engine still idling, fighting the temptation to back out of there, tyres screeching, and hit the highway – all the way to the airport and from there back to Washington and the real world.
She fought the urge and turned off the car. She retrieved her luggage from the back seat, making sure to pop a breath mint before mounting the steps to the front door. It opened before she got there. Her mother stood in the doorway, smiling at her.
“Welcome home, sweetheart.”
Elizabeth (“Call me Liz”) Voltaire was still a striking woman. Her hair, the same chestnut brown as Cassidy’s own, was pulled back into a ponytail fit for a teenager. Just a couple of inches shorter than her daughter, it was easy for her to wrap her arms around Cassidy’s neck and pull her into a tight embrace.
“We missed you.”
“I missed you too.”
Cassidy returned her mother’s smile as they drew back. It seemed none of the glamour had gone out of it in the year since she’d visited Cassidy in Washington. Every visit, Cassidy made sure to check that her mom’s smile was never just a little forced, a little strained. It never was.
Cassidy was always grateful for that. Grateful, and a little jealous. Because it seemed that every time she studied her own reflection in the mirror, her glamour had drained away, a drip at a time, while she slumbered in that land between sleep and awake. But then, Cassidy had always known that her mother was stronger than her. Or maybe it just seemed that way, because her mother had gotten the life she’d always wanted.
Slipping the strap of her bag off Cassidy’s shoulder, Liz led her into the house. Cassidy followed slowly, closing the door behind her. Once again, her mental inventory list engaged as she made her way into the only home she’d known until she was eighteen.
The carpet had been stripped in the parlor, and the wooden floors underneath sanded down, and then buffed to a warm lustrous shine. There were more pictures on the walls, and Cassidy took her time examining these. Family portraits mostly, sent from cousins, nephews and nieces all across the country – the world even. That was cousin Margaret with her two daughters in France. The furniture in the living room was new.
“Teak,” said Cassidy, running a hand over the smooth finish, “Expensive.”
“You only get the best when you buy from a Reese,” said Liz.
Cassidy felt her heart jump several beats at the mention of the name Reese, but she forced herself to ignore it. Fought the almost primal urge to dwell on what the name meant to her.
“Where’s dad?” she asked.
“In his den, where else?” her mother rolled her eyes, “You can go say hello while I put your stuff in your room.”
Cassidy marched on past the stairs and down a short hallway. The door to her father’s den was open. Here, again, there was a change. His desk was still there, as well as the leather recliner, but the desk now boasted a slim line PC, and the wall was almost erased by a massive LCD flat screen TV. Her father was in his chair, eyeglasses perched on his nose, reading the paper.
“Hey stranger,” she said, leaning against the doorframe.
Jean Voltaire was out of his chair faster than she would have deemed possible. He crushed her in a fierce hug, several notches stronger than her mother’s, and almost lifted her off her feet.
“Baby girl! My baby girl!”
Cassidy laughed, playfully punching him on the arm.
“Dad, let me go! I’ll choke!”
He promptly did as she asked, but still clasped her by the shoulders, holding her at arm’s length so he could study her.
“We missed you,” he said, his French accent still thick despite the fact that his family had moved to America when he was ten. That was stubbornness for you.
“So I’ve heard,” Cassidy replied.
“You should come home more,” he admonished her.
“I’m home now.”
“Yes, you are.”
Cassidy’s looks came from both her parents. Relatives had always joked that she got the best of both worlds, and it was true. She’d inherited her father’s Latin features, and swarthy complexion, coupled with her mother’s piercing green eyes. It was a compelling, and attractive mix.
“I have a gift for you!” her father skipped around the desk and started prodding through his drawers.
“Dad, that’s really not necessary,” she tried to protest.
Her father ignored her, “Your mother found it, buried in some old box. You haven’t been home in so long, and we knew it would take something like this to get you back here, so… it just seemed appropriate.”
He removed a flat, rectangular box from the drawer, laying it flat on the desk. It was tied with a purple ribbon. Cassidy slipped the bow free, and opened the box.
She forgot to breathe.
Her hands trembled slightly as she removed the beautifully framed photograph. It was a typical print, from standard stock, though the colours had held up well. The image was still clear. Too clear by half, as far as Cassidy was concerned. Just a glimpse, and the memories came hurtling back.
“Come on, dad! This is such a cliché!”
“One picture! Is that too much for a father to ask on his daughter’s graduation?”
“She’s right, Mr. Voltaire. We’d all rather forget we were ever in high school.”
“You know, Landon, you don’t always have to take her side.”
“No chance of that happening anytime soon, sir.”
“Get closer! Put your arms around each other! Smile, for God’s sake! There! Perfect!”
“Do you like it?”
For a second, Cassidy almost forgot where she was, such was the force of the memory. She looked up at her father, trying to blink it away. He was smiling, but it was faltering a bit, probably taking it’s cue from the look on her face.
“It’s great, dad. Thank you.”
Hastily, she put the picture back in the box and replaced the lid.
“I, uh… I should go unpack,” she said, “Get settled in before dinner. It’s been a long drive.”
“You should have let me come pick you up.”
“No, I’d rather have my own car while I’m here,” she said, “I’ll be moving around a bit.”
“I figured,” he said, “Lots of parties. Just remember, your curfew’s at midnight.”
“In your dreams, old man.”
Cassidy turned, heading for the door.
“Cassidy, wait! Your picture.”
He was holding the box out for her, expectant. Cassidy hesitated, then forced a smile and took it from him.
“I’ll see you in a bit,” she said, before making her escape.
The first few weeks of college are a time for storytelling. At least among the freshman class. Kids far from home, finally flung from the nest that had comforted them through childhood. College was a time to fly, or fall. Chief among the stories were outbursts of indignation – that their old bedrooms back home would go to the sibling next in line or, God forbid, be converted into a home gym by cruel parents who just didn’t care that their babies might want a place to crawl back to. Cassidy never understood that. She never planned on coming back home. Which made this all the more painful – because her room was exactly the same.
On her last visit, she’d begged her parents to do something about that. Turn it into a storage closet, or a rec room. Anything but this.
The same wallpaper, a plain floral print that set off the violently purple bed sheets. Her nightstand, with it’s oval mirror and assorted knickknacks – a music box, pictures of friends, and a range of Calvin and Hobbes figurines (all of them pulling faces). The Aerosmith poster on the wall – a souvenir from the only real first date she would ever have.
“What? I can’t hear you! The music’s too loud!”
“I said you rock! Like this!”
“I don’t know what you mean!”
“You rock like an Aerosmith concert in the rain!”
“God damn you, Landon…” she muttered as she fell onto the bed, the first coat of tears smearing her eyelashes, “I’m never going to get away from you.”