“Are you ready, Cat?” Alec called out as the rest of the students scrambled onto the idling school buses. She didn’t answer, but she held out a tiny hand to her big brother. He took it, tugging her gently to her feet.
“Hold on, Mr. Winters,” a teacher called out to him. “I’d like a word with you.” Mrs. Anders approached quickly and turned to face him. “I’d like to know what is going on with Catalina. Has something happened at home to upset her or make her sad? Is there something we need to know?”
“Why, Mrs. Anders, I’m certain I don’t know what you mean,” Alec thoughtfully and cautiously replied. Mrs. Anders was a familiar face, one he knew from his time in this same middle school. In addition, she was often seen at school function with her husband who taught high school math. Although he knew she was a busybody, he couldn’t imagine why she had focused on Cat so early into the school year. He was at a loss for words as his eyes flickered over Catalina. He could only wonder about the reason his sister was distressed, especially at school. “She’s normally a very happy, well-adjusted little girl. I’m at a loss…an utter loss,” he stammered.
“Catalina was crying in the girls’ bathroom today. Pardon me, but that doesn’t sound as if she is very happy. Has anything happened at home to upset her?” Mrs. Anders, wanting sordid details, rephrased the initial question. “Is there family troubles?”
Alec looked closely at his sister, wondering what could have happened to cause her to cry at school. His parents often argued loudly. Threats of divorce often punctuated their disagreements. Alec had always reassured Cat that Buck and Cassidy would never divorce. He had explained that divorce was taboo and forbidden in the Catholic Church. Still, perhaps she had overheard something that caused her to worry unnecessarily.
Catalina looked down at her feet and didn’t add anything to the conversation. Alec bent down, looking closely at her angelic face, and asked, “Cat, did something happen at home to worry you?” She remained silent. “Did something happen at school today? Did someone hurt your feelings?” He gently rearranged strands of hair that partially hid her features. She only shrugged and continued to stare at her shoes. At a loss, Alec reassured the teacher, “I’m unaware of anything unusual or different in our home, especially something that would cause Cat’s unhappiness at school, but I will certainly talk to her in private, Mrs. Anders.”
“We want all of our students to feel safe here,” Mrs. Anders continued. “Children do their best work when there is a safe environment at home and at school. If something is causing pain or confusion, we’d like to help. If you discover anything, anything at all, please let me know.” Her chastising voice and concerned gaze followed the tall, athletic male and his smaller young sister all the way to the sidewalk.
Together, Alec and Cat walked towards the next major intersection to wait for the Carrollton Avenue trolley. Alec, towering over her, pointed at their shadows, “We look like Mutt and Jeff,” he teased. Even though the reference to the oldest, continuous running comic had always amused her before, Catalina didn’t acknowledge or laugh at the joke. Alec sighed deeply. “Other than crying in the bathroom, how was your day?” he asked, knowing he was the only one who would show any interest in Cat’s feeling, emotions, and activities.
“It was all right,” she slowly responded before eagerly adding, “Art class was great. We painted today. Although I’d rather sketch, it was still fun. I always love art, but you know that.” Cat, a gifted artist, even at her age, had already forgotten about Mrs. Anders’ inquiry. She was once again cheerful. Still, Alec couldn’t let it slide.
“Did someone hurt your feelings today or pick on you?” he asked. The excitement in her eyes died down as she looked up at her brother with a quizzical gaze, ignoring his question the same as she had refused to acknowledge the teacher’s concerns.
“Do you really have to go back for practice, Alec?” Cat’s voice, a near whisper and barely audible, turned the attention back to him.
“You know I do, Cat. First, football practice and then an evening shift at the grocery store. It’s the same schedule we’ve kept for the last several years and we’ll probably keep it until I graduate.”
“Oh, I can’t bear the thought of you leaving, Alec,” Cat cried out as she threw thin arms around her brother’s waist in a spontaneous show of love and affection.
“Then, don’t fret about it until it actually happens,” he teased as he softly patted her slender shoulders and then playfully mussed her shimmering hair.
“Are you studying with Sabrina tonight?” she queried. The question was innocent but filled with worry and alarm. He knew she dreaded the time alone with their parents before she even voiced it, but he couldn’t assume the depths of her angst and despair.
“I’ll be home around nine tonight. Promise,” Alec vowed.
“But,” she pleaded, trying one more time. With a catch in her throat, she stammered, “But…but I hate to go home without you. You know how it is. Mama will be asleep on the couch. Daddy always gets home before you do. He’s always in a bad mood and drunk. He frightens me, Alec…he hurts me.” The last part of her protest was muffled because Catalina had both hands over her face to hide her unwarranted shame.
“What did you say, Cat?”
“Nothing, nothing at all!” she stormed as she stamped a foot in frustration. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” she sobbed. “Just, please, Alec…don’t make me go home alone.”
“Is that why you were crying at school?” he asked in frustration. “Do you hate being at home so much that you were upset even before the day ended?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she angrily shouted. “You don’t get it! Nothing really matters anyway. Just forget about it, Alec. Nothing changes and it’s always the same. I hate my life! I hate mother and I hate daddy even more!”
Overwhelmed by her emotional eruption, Alec wasn’t equipped to deal with either Catalina’s or his own spiraling feelings. Strange emotions instantly forced their way to the surface, but only a teenager himself, he was ill-equipped to handle them. He certainly understood the disillusionment that Cat felt toward their parents. He had felt it all too often himself. Although he commiserated with her about all of it, he wasn’t sure what to do about her outburst.
He responded in the only way he knew how; he soothed and cajoled in an attempt to support his sister’s feelings, “Ah, boo; I’m sorry. I know it’s a dull routine, but there isn’t any reason for you to feel so dramatic about your life.”
“Don’t talk down to me,” Cat warned.
“I’ll always talk down to you…I’ll always be taller,” Alec joked. “All I’m trying to say is that it’s a pretty good life overall.” No response. “You know this is the way we have to do things, Cat. You’re a big girl now,” Alec tried to calm her. In response, Catalina snatched her hand from his and defiantly crossed her arms over her chest. She refused to say anything that would alleviate her brother’s concern. “Come on,” he worried as he reached to take her hand again. “I don’t have time to get into this right now. Coach will tear me a new one for being late to practice. We’ll talk about it when I get home tonight, all right?”
“You’re always too busy,” she bitterly complained as she jerked her hand from his again and twisted away from him in anger.
“Come on, Cat, we have to catch the streetcar. Even if you look like Mutt, you’ll soon be a teenager,” he teased, trying to brush the nagging worry aside. She didn’t laugh so he continued with even more impractical and inane suggestions, “Besides, the trolley drops you off directly in front of the house. Go upstairs and do your homework. Put on your headphones and get out your sketchpad. If they argue, turn the music up to drown them out,” he coaxed. “Stay in your room. Stay out of the way and avoid both of them. You can do it. Do you want anything in particular from the deli? I can bring food home when I get off work. How does a chocolate brownie sound, hmm?”
Cat only nodded. She was angry and scared, but she knew that any further pleas were useless. She didn’t argue or beg anymore. It never did any good anyway. She knew her brother was popular and had a busy life. She didn’t want to interfere with it; she loved him too much to cause him pain. She looked up at Alec one last time. Her aquamarine eyes filled with tears and then overflowed down delicate, pale cheeks. Determined to be the ‘big girl’ her brother thought her to be, Cat hastily wiped away the liquid betrayal.
Alec kissed the top of his sister’s white-blonde head before lifting her slight body onto the top step of the streetcar. A coin clattered through the fare mechanism and the door closed. He could still see her grief-stricken face as the trolley pulled away. The sadness she experienced tugged relentlessly at his heartstrings.
She’ll be all right, he silently affirmed, forcing himself to believe it. The statement became a mantra as he jogged back to his school. The words, she’ll be all right, she’ll be all right, rhythmically kept time with the pounding of his feet on the pavement. Before the trolley made its final turn, he was in the gym ready to suit-up. Soon, the streetcar passed through the Garden District, dropped Cat off at their Carrollton Avenue home, and then, headed downtown.
Cat was out of sight, but not out of mind. Mrs. Anders words bothered Alec. Cat’s tear-streaked face haunted him too. Still, he recognized his own helplessness about the situation. He didn’t know what to do or what to say to alleviate her fears or the dread that seemed to bubble up in his stomach.