by Kim Pritekel
Disclaimers: No they’re not, yes they do, no you can’t.
Subtext: This story is of this nature, so if you don’t wanna read something of such good taste, go away.
If you’d like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com
To Alexa: Always and Forever
The rain had stopped hours ago, but I continued to stare out the window anyway. Nothing better to do. I had yet to go see her, but was not able to get my mind off of it, and what inevitably will happen; Michael and Margaret Lodge, staring at me, glaring at me. Wondering to themselves how they ever could have allowed someone like me into their house, or into their very world. Well, as Margaret had told me long ago, my kind was devious.
I shook my head, crossing my arms tighter around myself. After nearly ten years they probably had yet to get over their childish prejudices. No matter. It wasn't them that I was here for. Caden. She was what mattered. Why I had come back to Boston. I said I would never return, there was nothing for me there. Never was. But, now I had to concentrate on why I was back. What had brought me here. There really was only one person I could think of that was important enough for the trek. Hell, I hadn't even bothered for my own father's funeral three years ago.
"Hey, Laurel. How are you? Gooper here."
"Gooper?" I thought for a moment, confused, then my eyes opened wide in recognition and surprise. "Mike? Mike Lodge the third?" I had been shocked to hear his voice on the other end of the line.
"Sure is. Been awhile, eh?"
"You could say that." I smiled, leaning back against the floor-length windows of my studio. I motioned for the model to cover herself. "So to what do I owe this surprise? And how did you find me? San Diego is a far cry from Boston." Michael chuckled.
"That it is. But, it's not too hard to find Laurel Gleason. Hell, all I had to do was look on the back of one of your photographs hanging on my wall." I laughed along with him. "Also, it helps to know a few folks who happen to know the great artiste."
I shook my head again in wonder. "Yes, I suppose it does, and if you'll give me their names, I'll have them fired. So," my voice trailed off, the question obvious.
"Ah, well, I wish I was making a social call, but unfortunately I'm not." He sighed, and I began to worry. "Caden is asking for you."
"What?" I stood straight up, my model looking at me in concern. I turned my back on her and began to pace. "What do you mean, asking for me? Why? What's wrong?" Immediately my danger sense went off.
"Well, three months ago she was diagnosed with an Astrocytoma. In other words, brain cancer, right at the brain stem."
"No." I breathed. " Is she okay? How serious is it?" my pulse began to race.
"Well, she's going into surgery in three days. I don't think it's life-threatening, but, there's always that chance. She wanted to see you before she goes in. So, here we are."
I let out the breath I'd been holding, and closed my eyes, my hand on my forehead.
"Why did she ask for me, Mike?"
"I don't know, Laurel. Perhaps she was worried about not making it. Tying up loose ends. Anyone's guess. Will you come?" he asked after a slight pause of uncertainty. I stared out into the busy street below, my mind whirling. Coming to a decision, I nodded.
"I'll be there tomorrow."
I shivered and turned away from the cold glass, looked around the hotel room. They all began to look alike after awhile; bed, bathroom, kitchenette, a sitting room if you were lucky. Same smells, same empty feel. I was so glad that I didn't travel much anymore. Getting a clientele near home was the best thing to happen to my career, and my sanity.
I sighed. I was having a hard time placing the Caden I had known with the woman that she was today. We were so different now. Me, single, career. Her, married, mother. Straight. I thought about the Caden I had known at Franklin & Marshall, beautiful and healthy. Tall with dark hair that fell just to her shoulders, hair that she used to love me running my hands through. Her eyes, a brilliant blue, vibrant, almost electric.
Was all this worth it? All that was over. We had been young, and trying to discover who we were. But still
I walked over to the bed, laid back, hands behind my head, thought of the last day Caden and I had lived together as roommates
"Why are you doing this?" I asked, my voice quiet, eyes swollen and red from hours of fighting and crying.
"I have to. You don't understand." Caden had said, her back to me as she continued to pack, carefully folding every article of clothing, neatly fitting all she owned into her suitcases.
"You're right. I don't understand." I sighed, and stood from the bed, walking to the door. "And I guess our friendship doesn't mean enough to you to tell me? All I want to do is help." Caden stopped for a moment, looked at me over her shoulder, her blue eyes sad and hopeless.
"You can't help me, Laurel. No one can." Then she gave me her back again. I felt another tear begin to slide down my cheek but didn't bother to swipe at it, letting it fall. I decided to try a different tactic.
"What about being a doctor, Caden? That is what you've wanted to do your entire life. Why are you throwing it all away? What is worth tossing your dreams?" she didn't' answer. I tried to stare a hole through her, make her see with just the power of my eyes. Nothing. "Okay." I whispered, and left the room.
The small apartment I shared with Caden was a couple blocks away from our college, so I headed for the F&M campus, usually my place to go to think or be alone. Fall was on its way as late September crept in. I hadn't changed out of my sweat shorts, which had been a mistake, so I found a bench, and sat down, curling my legs up to my chest. The night sky was filled with stars, barely perceptible above the lights of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Not even countable, but comforting to know that they were still there, still to be counted on, stability. I needed stability in my life, and Caden had been mine. Until that night. My family had been rocky, and I had been on my own for too many years. Caden had been the one thing that I could look at and know it would still look the same. Like a reflection of a friend, always there for you.
I buried my face in my knees, the cold skin making me shiver. What was she not telling me?
I looked up, startled. Caden was looking down at me, her hands buried in the pockets of her jacket. I didn't say anything, just looked up at her. She sat next to me, taking the windbreaker off, putting it around my shoulders, then straddled the bench so she could face me.
"You looked cold." She said. I snorted.
"Probably cause I am."
"Guess so." She looked down at her thigh, fingering the material of her jeans nervously. She began to speak, but stopped herself, instead taking a deep breath, then the words spilled out, "I'm pregnant."
My head shot up, and I looked over at her, mouth agape. "What?" her head fell even lower as she nodded.
"I found out two weeks ago. I couldn't tell you, Laurel. I was too ashamed." I was speechless as I looked at her profile, trying to read something in it, to no avail.
"I don't understand. Who? When? How could this happen?" My heart dropped into my stomach. Caden was not just my best friend, but I was also completely in love with her. I felt betrayed, which was absolutely absurd. I had no claim on her, no rights at all. We had said things, but still. She was not mine.
"Troy." She whispered. "Over the summer."
"Oh." I said, my voice filled with defeat. Finally she looked at me, tears in her eyes, which took me aback for a moment. I don't think I had ever seen her cry. "I didn't realize, I guess."
"There was nothing to realize, Laurel. We weren't serious. It just happened."
"What are you going to do? Why are you leaving school? You're almost done. We have a semester and a half to go!" I turned on the bench to face her, feeling the pain come off her in waves. "And you've already been accepted at Stanford for med school." I felt sick.
"I know, but I have to. I don't know what I'll do. I have to tell him still." She covered her face with her hands, her sob muffled before it was cut off. She looked up, past me, her eyes red and angry. "God forbid something happen to the Lodge name." She spat, then buried her face in her hands again as she began to really sob. "God, why me?" I felt my stomach lurch as I saw my friend fall apart. Scooting closer to her, I gathered her into my arms, rocking her gently back and forth, her fingers digging into the skin of my arms painfully. I didn't care. She was my best friend, and I'd be there for her no matter what.
If only she'd let me.
I laid in the dark on that hard mattress, staring up into the dark ceiling, thinking. I had been so shocked to hear the news of the impending baby. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that. Not Caden. I had not heard her talk about Troy for over a month, and figured that it was over. Well, had hoped, was more the word. I smiled into the darkness. How hopeless I had been then
I was excited as the first day of college loomed just up ahead. My family was not a wealthy one, but I was still determined to go to a good school, and not some community college in Southie. I wanted a four-year degree, to be the only one in the Gleason family to get one. My dream was to be an artist, and only the very best would get me there. In school I had fought to get the best grades, and the effort paid off as I graduated with nearly perfect grades, and was granted a full scholarship to Franklin & Marshall college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The excitement had raced through me like adrenalin the day I got my acceptance letter.
"Laurel, get your mail from the table." My mother had yelled from the utility room where she had been folding laundry. I dropped my backpack onto a kitchen chair, then looked through the pile of paper, and old newspapers stacked on the table. There it was.
To Laurel M. Gleason from Franklin & Marshall Office of Admission.
Without a second of hesitation, I ripped the envelope open, and poured over the words, my brows raising higher with every word.
"Yes!" Jumping into the air, my boots coming down on the old, stained kitchen tile with a thud. "I got it! I got in!"
"What the hell is all the ruckus about!" my father stormed as he flew down the stairs. He wore his usual, stained undershirt and wrinkled work pants. Doesn't the guy ever shower? I turned to him, waving the letter madly in front of his face. The guy was a bastard, but I didn't care. At that point I would have showed the devil himself.
"I got in!"
"Got in where?!"
I could see he was getting irritated with the mystery, so I handed him the letter.
"They're going to pay for me, too!" my father took the paper, looked at it, his perpetual scowl in place. He raised a hand and scratched at the stubble on his chin before green eyes looked at me. He nodded with a small smile.
"Good for you, kid." He said, and walked away, tossing the paper onto the table and grabbing a beer out of the fridge before plopping his weight into a squeaky chair. Okay. Score one. I grabbed my letter, and headed to the utility room, thrusted it in front of my mother. She looked at me, startled and annoyed.
"Read." I said, grinning from ear to ear. She took the glasses from on top of her head, and placed them on her nose, squinting through the lenses, the prescription never right in them. She looked up at me, a smile on her face.
"Oh, Laurel." She carefully folded the paper, and set it on top of the dryer, turning to me, gathering me into a warm embrace. I found myself wanting to lose myself in that show of support. I had needed it my whole life, and my mother had done her best under the ever watchful eye of my father. "I'm so proud of you, honey." She pushed me away slightly, and looked into my eyes, her hands on my shoulders. I looked into her tired face. "You go out there, and blow them all away. Make me proud as you always have. Do what I never did, and what your father and brother won't do," she looked toward the kitchen to make sure Derek Gleason wasn't paying attention. " Don't you let yourself get sucked into this kind of life, honey. It's not worth it." I stared at her, dumbstruck. My father was a hard man, and one I certainly didn't understand, but I had no idea that my mother had such strong regrets about her life. I suddenly felt so sad. I also felt the need to get out of the house, and away from my family, stronger than ever before.
Up in my room, I laid on the floor, my radio on low next to my head. The smile wouldn't leave my lips as the music disappeared, and my future came into focus. I pictured myself living in the south of France, my paints next to me as I studied my model, pallet in hand, blank canvas before me, just waiting for me to weave my magic.
I sighed in contentment. Someday.
I wrote down my calls as I checked my voice mail, then looked into the mirror again with a sigh. I looked good, wearing comfortable cords, a cream-colored Henley, and hiking boots. With one last swipe of my hand through short, blonde hair, I was ready to go.
It was the day before Caden's surgery, and she had asked for her and I to have a day together. I must admit I was somewhat surprised by this request. What did we have to talk about? I knew nothing about the life she led now, nor did I really want to venture into her life again. Some lessons are best learned once
"Hey, Laurel, here's your mail." Stacey dropped the letters onto my desk before leaving the apartment to go on to work. Stacey Keller had taken Caden's place as my roommate. I muttered a thanks, and pushed the mail aside as I finished my sketch, my final painting coming to life before my eyes in black and white.
Hours later I stood, stretching my tortured back, arms above my head. I glanced down, looking critically at my self-portrait. Squinting, I canted my head to the side, grinning at how well I had captured the color of my eyes, and the expression on my face. Nodding approvingly, I saw the forgotten mail, and one letter in particular that made me stop, mid-reach.
It was from Caden.
I sat on the edge of the desk, staring at the plain white envelope for a moment before I slowly tore it open. Inside was a simple card, hand written message on the inside.
Hello, Laurel. I hope you are doing well. I heard that Stacey moved in. I'm glad. It helps with the rent, I suppose.
Well, I guess I'll get to the point. I'm sure you're busy during finals, and everything. I'm getting married. Troy asked, and I accepted. I am excited about it. We figure a child should have its mother and its father, so all around, everyone will be happier. I hope you will come.
I miss you, and hope you are doing good. Congratulations on graduating soon. I wish I were there with you. Do you still intend on taking the trip across the country that we planned?
Isn't life funny.
I read the card again. Happier for everyone? Caden's mother most of all to be sure. I turned the card over, noting the time, place and day. It was only two weeks away.
I crumpled the card in my hand and stared at my reflection in the glass, trying to decide what to do. The girl staring back at me looked confused and unsure. After what we had admitted to each other, she wanted me to see her marry a man, vowing to spend the rest of her life with him? And how could she bring up our trip? We both had spent hours upon hours talking about it, discussing it, planning for it. I think it had even been her idea.
I tossed the card, a satisfying thud as it landed in the bottom of my trash can.
The drive to Beacon Hill was pleasant, the area always amazing me, my artist's eye in ecstasy as I looked at the tree-lined streets, the large, spacious brownstones looming up ahead, incredible in their age-defying beauty. I hadn't seen the magnificence of the prestigious neighborhood since early college. It hadn't changed at all, but was still stunning.
I drove my rented Ford Explorer slowly down Mt. Vernon Street, looking at the huge houses on the hill before I reached the estate belonging to Michael and Margaret Lodge. I would have loved to photograph some of them. Maybe I would make some time during my stay in Boston.
The Lodge house was beautiful, all brick, nearly two hundred years old. The six chimneys reaching proudly into the heavens, the tall windows gazing out like huge eyes forbidding anyone to enter uninvited. Caden had once told me that the estate had cost her great grandfather close to two million dollars nearly a century ago. I could only imagine what the cost would be today.
I whistled through my teeth as I pulled up to the wrought-iron privacy gate, the security box next to my open window.
"Can I help you?" asked a deep voice from the black speaker.
"One moment, please." I tapped the steering wheel as I waited, watching as a couple birds took flight out of a near-bye tree. "Come in."
Within seconds the large gate opened, and I pulled forward, marveling at the ornately carved L at the center. The driveway was long and winding, tall trees on either side of the road surrounded by acres of grass. Horses could be seen in the distance, running or grazing. Out buildings could also be seen; one or two were guest houses, others were pool houses or sheds.
Just above the tree-line, the chimneys came into view, the first thing you saw of the magnificent house. Incredible. I thought of the first time Caden had ever taken me home. It had been our sophomore year. My eyes had been the size of saucers, never being so close to anything so splendid.
I pulled up into the circular drive, noting the Ferrari Testarossa that was parked just in front of my Explorer, its candy-apple red paint flawless. Wanting to run my hand down the fine lines of the car, but not daring enough to set off a million alarms, and the attack dogs, I walked to the front door instead. The double doors with beveled glass stood before me. Seeing the door bell, I pushed it, and waited. Didn't have to wait long, however. The right door opened, and Mildred, the maid of twenty years, answered, her gentle, yet greatly aged, face looking up at me.
"Laurel. How lovely to see you again." She smiled, miles of wrinkles lining her face, yet youthful blue eyes sparkled.
"Hello, Mildred. How are you?" I returned the smile, and walked over the threshold as the older woman stepped back and aside.
"Well, can't complain too much, I suppose. I'm sorry mistress Caden has been so ill."
"Yes. It's been very difficult, I'm sure. Where is she?" I looked around the large foyer, the marble floor polished to perfection.
"Thank you." I smiled again, and headed down the main hall. Butterflies began beating around my ribcage as I got closer, able to hear pages in a book being turned. With a deep breath, I entered into the large, dark paneled room. A fire was popping softly in the fireplace giving the room a warm glow as the overcast weather outside darkened the day.
Everything was as it had been before. Same furniture, dark, impressive in its ornate carvings, same art work on the walls, and mostly the same books. The collection had grown, though. I looked to the Victorian chair near the fire, its ivory upholstery as elegant as ever.
"Hello, Caden." Blue eyes looked up at me, wide with surprise, then narrowing slightly with nervous caution as pale, thin hands grasped the arms of the chair.
"Hello, Laurel." A slow, unsure smile spread across her thin face. "Thank you for coming." I looked at her, surprised at what I saw. She was much thinner than I remembered, and her hair was much shorter, nearly as short as mine. Just as Michael warned me, her facial muscles had been affected by the pressure from the tumor. The right side drooped a bit, making her normally crooked smile that much more so, also causing her right eye to look heavily lidded.
My heart clenched in my chest, and I leaned against the doorframe. It had been such a long time, and feelings and emotions from the past grabbed me suddenly. All I wanted to do was find some way to leave, to leave that behind me. But, here my past sat, right before me.
Caden's soft voice brought me out of my panic.
"I know I look different." She reached up a hand, and ran her fingers through the short, dark strands on her head. "Got a hair cut." The crooked smile again. I smiled in return. "How are you?"
I shrugged, taking a step into the room, sitting on the hearth, not far from her, my hands folded in my lap. "I'm good. To be honest, it was actually kind of nice to leave the city for a bit, head out here. See you, though I must say, I was pretty surprised when Mike called."
Caden nodded, looking down at the restless fingers in her lap, tapping the cover of the closed book. "I'm sure. I hope I didn't interrupt anything too important?" she looked at me briefly, blue eyes hopeful, before quickly looking away. I shook my head with a smile, reaching out to put my hand on her knee.
"Not at all." To my surprise she laid her hand on top of mine, squeezing my fingers almost painfully.
"Thank you, Laurel." She said, her voice almost urgent. I looked at her, stunned by the intensity.
"Sure." The fingers began to gently stroke my own.
"You look good." She said, looking at my clothing, and up to my eyes, taking in everything. "I hear you've done very well for yourself in California. My brother owns quite a bit of your work."
"Yes. He told me." I looked down at our fingers, surprised that I felt a surge of warmth. I had missed her friendship.
"I'm glad you're here with me."
First day of college! I unloaded my Volks, loaded all my stuff into Marshall-Buchanan dorm, carrying as much of my crap in one trip as I could, up to the third floor, room number 303.
Panting, I dropped my two duffel bags, and one backpack, onto the floor, and dug my key out of my pocket. Just about to insert it into the lock, the door opened, and standing before me was my roommate. I looked her up and down, noting how tall she was. I glanced down to see her light khaki cotton skirt, long, tanned legs coming out the bottom with sandals on her feet. My eyes trailed up to her sleeveless, blue knit top, and necklace with a single diamond hanging down in the hollow of her throat.
She stopped short, surprised to see me.
"I apologize. Didn't know anyone was there." She breathed, her hand on her chest. I shrugged.
"Eh, s'okay. Happens a lot." I smiled, and got a weak smile in return.
"Are you the O.A.?"
"The O.A. Orientation Advisor? Aren't you bringing this girl's luggage to the room?" she pointed at my bags, looking at me curiously. I snorted.
"Hell no! No one offered me bell boy service. This luggage belongs to this girl." I pointed at my chest with a smile. "I'm Laurel Gleason." I extended my hand out to her. She looked at it for a moment, then back to my face.
"Caden Lodge." She took my hand in a dainty shake that belied her height. I couldn't help but chuckle. Oh yeah, this would definitely be an interesting semester.
"Wait, wait, wait! What are you doing? You do not wash reds with darks. Have you never washed clothes before?" I stared at her, incredulous at my roommate of three months' outburst. I had never heard her so much as raise her voice let alone get huffy. I grinned. Wrong thing to do. "What is so funny, Laurel? I'm quite serious."
"Oh." Chuckle. "Sorry. Um, yeah, I've done laundry before. Never separated it into a thousands piles, though." I stared down at the floor, my two piles, whites and darks, that Caden was quickly breaking down further into smaller ones.
"Your clothes will last much longer if you do it this way." She said with a satisfied nod.
"Yeah, but my detergent won't." I glared up at her, she shrugged.
"I'll buy next time."
Café Rolland was in the heart of Boston, the old city all around us. We sat near the window, watching people walk by, most looking right back in at us.
"So, what do you do?" I asked, looking at Caden who picked at her salad. She glanced up at me for a moment, then looked back down as she forked a crouton.
"Not much. It's pretty much a full-time job just to be a mom."
"A mom?" I looked at her, my brows drawn. I knew she had a child, but had never let myself really think about it. "What do you have?" I couldn't help but realize just how sad it was that I had no clue if Caden had had a boy or a girl, nor their name or even age.
"My daughter, Annie, will be ten this year." I stared, stunned.
"Ten?" I blurted. Caden nodded with a small smile.
"It's gone so fast, I know." She sipped from her tea glass, softly setting it back down. I watched the movement, graceful hands with neatly manicured nails. Just as they always were. "She is really a great kid."
"Is she back at your parent's house?" I asked, pushing my near empty plate away. Caden looked down at the few pieces of food I had left, a small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
"What happened to your ravenous appetite, Laurel?" I smiled with a shrug.
"On the backside of twenty. Can't eat like a pig forever." We both smiled knowingly.
"Anyway, Annie is with her father this week."
"With her father? What, I don't understand. Aren't you and Troy still married?" The words tumbled from my mouth sounding bitter. I felt childish as I glanced down at my plate. Caden sat back in her chair, trying to get comfortable, seemingly not affected by the brash tone of my voice. I was grateful.
"Troy and I have separated." I was surprised at the tone, matter-of-fact, almost cold.
"Oh. I'm sorry to hear that. When?"
"Ten months ago. I want a divorce, but he won't grant me one." I looked at her, my head canted to the side.
"Why?" troubled blue eyes looked at me. She bit her lip before she answered.
"My guess is he doesn't think three affairs with three different women, nor the years of mental abuse I've taken from the bastard qualifies for a divorce." We stared at each other for a moment, she almost challenging me to say anything different. I could see the pain in her eyes.
The moment held, and I wondered what to do to break it. I was uncomfortable, the soul-seeking intensity in Caden's eyes was almost too much for me to take. I felt as if she was trying to read every thought in my head.
I cleared my throat, looking out at the street. Gathering my thoughts and myself together, I turned back to my old friend with a smile.
"It was really nice to be back here to the café. I was glad you chose it." Caden returned my smile.
"Yes. I thought it would be a very appropriate place to go, considering."
I smiled with a small nod, looking down at the tablecloth that my fingers had began to caress. I didn't know what to say to her. So much time, and so much water had passed under that bridge, and I didn't know how to get it back.
"Well, do you have a picture of Annie?" I was suddenly very curious to see what the child that Caden and Troy had produced. As it was, I couldn't quite reconcile with the idea that she had a child at all.
"Of course." I watched as she grabbed her purse from the floor under her chair, and began to dig through it, suddenly a renewed spirit filling her.
Caden had changed since we had been in college, but in so many ways she was just the same. Physically, anyway. I didn't know her anymore. I had wondered if I ever really did. She never truly showed me her true self; only what she wanted me to see. That fact had haunted me for years. I had given her my all, and she had given what was appropriate.
I sighed quietly. Maybe at the time that was all she could give.
"Here you are."
I looked at the hand that was extended across the table, a snapshot in her fingers. With a nervous smile, I took the picture, looking down at it. I stared, transfixed. I was looking into the eyes of a much younger Caden. The blue eyes shone with the same brilliant light, the same vigor and life. The girl was much shorter than I imagined her mother was at nine, but the hair, the eyes, the bone structure, were all the same.
I glanced up into expectant eyes. I smiled. "She's absolutely beautiful, Caden. Looks just like her mother." The softest smile spread across her face as she looked into my eyes.
"Thank you, Laurel. I'm anxious for you to meet her." I could see the love for that little girl radiated from her in waves. "She's heard a lot about you."
"Really?" I asked, surprised. "What she's heard, is that recent, or has she ever heard my name before now?" Caden stared at me, her face, as usual, unreadable. Part of me regretted asking, but another part of me wondered. Had I just come back into the picture, and Caden's mind because of her illness? Had she ever given me any thought in the decade past? I'd probably never know.
Caden looked down, taking the picture I handed back to her, quietly putting it back into her purse.
"I wanted you to be her god mother. Troy would hear nothing of it." She said softly, her eyes still on her bag. I stared, stunned, then I felt like an ass.
"I'm sorry. I guess coming back here has sort of brought the bitterness of the past back, too." Blue eyes looked at me, understanding evident. She nodded.
"I can see why. I'm sure there's not a whole lot I can say to erase the pain you felt all those years ago back at F&M, so all I can say is that I am sorry. I never meant to hurt you, or keep you out of my life, Laurel."
"Then why did you?"
"I didn't feel I had a choice at the time. I was young, inexperienced, and weak. I know that now. I'm sorry."
I nodded, smiling slightly. I did truly accept her apology, but there were still so many questions I wanted to ask, so many things I wanted to know. Mainly, how could she let go of her dream? Back in those days being a doctor had been what her core had been made of. All she ever wanted to do. I wondered if that driving need was still in there somewhere.
"It's okay. Now with some retrospect, and maturity, I can see how things happen." I began to play with my napkin, fingers twisting it into a rope. Caden followed my movements with her eyes.
"I think you're about to kill it." She grinned. I glanced down at my strangled napkin, and smiled, releasing it, tossing it back to the table. "Thank you." Our eyes met as we shared a smile, and then the moment was gone.
"For what?" Caden shrugged, dark bangs falling down into her eyes. She pushed them aside, and took a deep breath.
"For being who you are. For being here when I had no right to expect you to be. I guess just thank you for so many reasons. For trying to be there so many years ago, even if I wouldn't listen. I did hear you, Laurel. I just couldn't turn away from my responsibilities." She tapped the her purse that still sat in her lap. "Annie means the world to me. I'd be lost without her." She looked at me with beseeching eyes. "Please understand I did what I had to do." I stared at her, moved by her honesty, and quiet pleading for understanding. Finally I nodded.
"I forgave you years ago, Caden." My voice was quiet, my heart in my words. A smile spread across her face, white and perfect, slightly crooked from the affects of the tumor. She said nothing, but instead picked up the ticket on the edge of our table, and stood.
"This one's on me."
Caden had asked me to stay at the house and join her and her family for coffee, but I refused. I couldn't bare to spend any more time with Margaret Lodge than was absolutely necessary. So, I headed back to my hotel room, awaiting the morning when I'd have to head to the hospital in Boston.
Restless, I wondered around town for a bit, walking to release some of my pent-up energy, but to no avail. Back at the hotel I took my sketch pad from the Explorer, and began to draw, my pencil held gingerly in my fingers, the tip barely brushing over the surface of the paper. My eyes were on the lines, but my mind was in the past.
"Okay. I want you to brace yourself. My house is kind of big, and my parents are mostly snobs. So don't be offended."
"Wonderful. Can't wait to meet them." I mumbled as I looked out the window of Caden's midnight black Porsche 911 Turbo. I always felt so strange riding in such a car. The type of thing I could only wish to see on television, certainly never dreaming of my best friend owning one! Especially at eighteen.
The top was down, the wind rushing through our hair as Caden expertly steered the small car through traffic on our way to the Lodge estate.
"The tops of those chimneys over there? That's my house."
The closer we got to the mansion, the bigger my eyes got. I was absolutely shocked, and intimidated by the shear size and wealth of it.
"You grew up here?" I asked, my voice low, almost as if in a respectful whisper. Caden chuckled, glancing over at me as she punched in some numbers into the code box below the speaker. The gate opened a moment later, and we were driving again.
"Born and raised. This is the family home. My grandfather bought the place a long time ago. He was a senator, and made a lot of money."
I nodded dumbly, looking in awe at the land, the stables, then the house. Caden pulled the Porsche into the driveway, and I sat, frozen to my seat, looking up at the magnificent house. Caden, who had opened her car door, looked over at me.
"You coming?" I looked at her, and she smiled. "It's okay. Come on." With a deep breath, I opened my door, and grabbed my overnight bag, followed her inside. The double doors we passed through arched, dark wood with elegant etched glass. Once inside I couldn't help but look around, my mouth hanging open. The floor of the foyer was made of marble, the mid-day sun streaming in from the stained glass windows above the front doors shone on it, blue, red and green. Beautifully carved, expensive furniture lined the wall, a large wall mirror above the small table that held a crystal vase of roses.
"Those are from my mother's prized gardens." Caden explained. I reached out, lightly touching the soft, delicate petal of one. They were beautiful, full, and bright. Some of the most incredible roses I'd ever seen.
Off to the right was a door, stained a dark wood like the front doors, and beyond looked to be a room with some expensive-looking couches and a baby grand piano, and one of the fireplaces. Caden must have seen my confusion.
"That's a sitting room." I looked at her as if she'd grown another head. What the hell was a sitting room? "When my parents have guests, that's where they go."
To the left of the front door was an archway, and beyond what looked to be a den or living room, much like the sitting room, but looked less formal. Just ahead was a beautiful staircase that seemed to wrap around the entire room. I looked on in awe, the dark, carved wood banister and hand rail that led to the second floor, then continued on to the third.
"Wow." I breathed.
An older woman had opened the door for us, and to my surprise, hugged Caden.
"Hello, miss. So good to see you." She said, her smile wide and warm. She looked to me, extending a similar smile.
"Mildred, this is my friend from school, Laurel Gleason. Laurel, Mildred. She's been here longer than I have." Caden laughed as she was lightly tapped on the arm by the woman.
"Oh, that is not true. But nearly so." The older woman said, gently patting her graying hair that was pulled back into a net bun. She wore a pressed uniform dress that was dark blue, the white collar starched and neatly buttoned.
"Nice to meet you." I said, wondering if these people actually had servants. Never in my life had I seen anything like it except in the movies.
"Are mother and father home?" Caden asked, handing Mildred her purse and coat, and nodding for me to give the maid my coat also.
"Well, your father is out, but I believe your mother is in the kitchen with Antonio."
"Great. Thank you." Mildred nodded and smiled at me as we headed toward the hall straight ahead. As we walked, I looked around at the intricate molding near the unbelievably tall ceilings, and the rich wood work around the doorframes and baseboards. The art work on the walls was obviously originals, and I wanted to stop so badly and examine each one, but kept up with Caden's long strides around the main floor, behind the massive staircase, and into a kitchen that I think my house in Southie would easily fit inside of.
Standing near the large, stainless steel refrigerator was a woman with medium length, medium brown hair, slim figure, not as tall as Caden, but taller than me, talking to a good-looking man with dark hair, and black eyes.
"Well, I'd say you're doing just fine, Antonio. After all, you do use your knife well." The woman said, her voice low and teasing. I watched the two interact, finding it interesting. The body language was close and flirtatious, but I didn't want to make any assumptions. Maybe that's how Caden's mother acted with everyone. Yeah, right.
"Mother." I could hear the irritation in my friend's voice. Margaret Lodge quickly turned, wiping the smile off her face quickly. The cook turned back to his cutting board and his vegetables.
"Darling!' Margaret walked over to her daughter, her silky clothing blowing out around her body, making her seem to float with her graceful movements. "How are you, love?" she took her daughter's face between heavily ringed fingers, bringing her in for a kiss upon both cheeks. Caden looked miserable and slightly embarrassed. Mrs. Lodge stepped back from her, taking a hand in both of hers, lifting Caden's long arms out to either side of her body, and looked her over. Caden looked good in a pair of pressed chinos, a blue satin blouse, and black leather boots. "You look marvelous, my love." She looked her over again, carefully shaped brows drew. "However, you are thin, love. You really must eat better. Your clothes are hanging off of you. They're not cheap, you know. We bought them to fit you, Caden."
"Thank you, mother. You look beautiful, too." Caden looked down at herself. "I know. I've just been so busy, and have no time. I'll try and eat better. Mother, this is my friend and roommate I told you about, Laurel Gleason. Laurel, my mother, Margaret Lodge."
I smiled shyly, extending my hand to her. The woman looked me over, paying special attention to my clothing. I wondered if the sweater Caden had loaned me would pass the test. But then, I figured my cheap jeans would spoil the image that I had any idea or clue about dress. Finally she took my hand, hers cold and impersonal.
"Nice to meet you, Laurel. Where are you from, dear?"
"Oh? Which part?"
"So, mom. What's for dinner? We're starving."
I looked to Caden who looked right back at me. Relieved, I smiled slightly at her, then turned my attention to Antonio who Margaret seemed to be completely fine giving her attention to.
"Well, this is our new chef, Antonio. He's wonderful."
"I'm sure he is." Caden muttered. I swallowed a chuckle.
"Antonio, say hello to my daughter Caden and her little friend, Laurel."
The young chef turned around to face us, wiping his large hands on the apron her wore. He smiled at us, dimples winking from either side of his full-lipped mouth.
"A pleasure." He said, his voice deep, accent thick. His dark eyes were sexy, and managed to wonder to Margaret, and often. "It's been a wondrous experience to work for your mother. She is a woman of impeccable taste." He smiled broadly at her, then at us. Personally I wanted to puke, but Caden seemed a bit miffed.
"Nice to meet you, Antonio." She said, then turned away from him, back to her mother. "Where is father, mother?" I could see Caden's jaw muscle working as she tried to keep her emotions under control.
"Oh, he had a business trip in Vancouver. He should be back in the morning." Margaret sighed, and began walking toward the hall. "Oh, dinner is set for seven-thirty. I'm having a few friends over, so you two can entertain yourselves, I'm sure."
"Mother, you knew I was coming home this weekend with Laurel." Her mother turned in the doorway.
"Well, why would you plan something?"
"Darling, my friends always come over the first Friday of the month for dinner. You know that. Perhaps you should have planned your trip for a Saturday instead." With the kiss that Margaret had blown to her daughter still hanging in the air, and a whoosh of silk, Margaret Lodge was gone.
The sun was just beginning to rise above the tree-line, it's intense, early morning rays shining through the thin strip between the closed curtains of my hotel room window. I squinted, raising a hand to cover my eyes. With a groan I barely opened one, just to close it again.
"God, it's too early for this." I jumped then as the bedside alarms blared to life, the nerve rattling buzz bouncing around in my head. With the slam of my palm, the clock went silent. Five-fifteen in the morning. No way. Caden's surgery was set for seven, and she asked me to be there when she went in. So, I forced myself to sit up and face the day.
The spray from the shower was warm as I leaned against the cool tile wall, a groan falling from my lips. My internal clock was completely confused. San Diego time, it was just after three in the morning. Definitely for the birds. But, alas; Caden was worth it. I knew she was scared, and I wanted to be there for her. I was also looking forward to seeing the Gooper again.
I watched Caden, her shoulders drooped, her demeanor changed. She sat on her bed, the antique four-poster with the beautiful ivory-colored silk canopy. Her room was enormous, her own bathroom with a Jacuzzi tub in the corner separate from the full-size shower. Huge windows lined one wall filling the room with light and warmth from the late afternoon sun. I stood at the center of the room, not sure what to do, or where to go.
After leaving the kitchen, we had headed straight up the stairs to the third floor, bypassing the rest of the tour. I wasn't sure what exactly she was bothered by the most. It wasn't long before I found out.
Caden sighed quietly, then stood, walking over to the massive armoire, looking into the mirrored doors, turning this way and that. Finally she looked back at me.
"Do I look too thin to you, Laurel?" I looked at her body, tall and well proportioned. I'd never really given it much thought, but as I looked at her I realized just how beautiful she really was. Next thing I know, I'm staring. "Laurel?" I blinked rapidly, looking like I'd just been hit.
"Oh, um, no. I don't really, um, think you're too thin." I turned away, feeling completely stupid. "Actually, um, I think you look really good. Really, um, pretty." I looked down at the white carpet, my fingers twisting around each other until one of the joints cracked, making me wince.
Caden looked at me, her face softening. "Really?" she asked, her voice almost full of wonder. What, didn't people tell her that on a regular basis?
"That is so sweet." I felt myself blushing from the roots of my hair down to the soles of my Reeboks.
"Um, sure." I rocked slightly on my heels, looking away.
"Do you think my mother is fucking the chef?"
My head shot up, my eyes wide. I couldn't stop the smile of surprise from spreading across my face. "What?"
"I think she is. It wouldn't be the first time." Caden turned back to the armoire, opening it up to reveal an entire stock of clothing. Probably more in that piece of furniture than I owned at all.
"Well, to be honest, Caden, I'm not real sure on that one. I guess it's possible." That had been my first thought, but I just didn't feel the need to stomp all over the poor girl's mother. Personally just on my first impression of the woman, I did not like her one bit. An impression that unfortunately would not go away.
As the night wore on, Caden and I sat cross-legged on her massive king-sized bed, and talked. We talked about everything and nothing; parents, brothers, and school. But, mostly we talked about our dreams.
Caden laid back on the bad, stretching her long legs out, crossing them at the ankles, and stared up at the underside of her canopy.
"I've wanted to be a doctor ever since I can remember, Laurel. It's all I want to do." She turned to look at me. I could see the love in her eyes, the hope and ambition. "My father wants me to follow in his footsteps, telling me that I have a mind like his, and would do wonderful in the business world. But I don't want to do that. I don't give a damn about all this." She raised her hand, indicating the room, and all the obvious money behind it.
"Well, going into medicine can be pretty lucrative." I said, running my hand over the soft down comforter.
"Yeah," Caden shrugged. "But that's not the point. I mean, hell, I'd be willing to go practice in some tiny little town somewhere, just a blurb on a very detailed map."
"My friend, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman."
"Exactly!" I saw the spark light in those blue eyes, and my spirits began to soar. I loved nothing more than for the often emotionless Caden to be filled with fire about something. Everything just seemed to not matter to her, or she refused to show that it did. That bothered me. "Don't you see, Laurel? Being a doctor is as much about passion, devotion, and understanding than anything else. It makes me so sad that most don't see it that way, or those that do in the beginning, lose it. The all mighty dollar."
As my friend began to really get into the groove, I watched her, her face flushed, her hands moving wildly as she explained all the intricate little details of medicine, and where she wanted to study it, and under whom. I couldn't help but smile. What a wonderful sight to see. I would love for someone so dedicated to their dream to be my doctor.
"You'll make an incredible doctor someday, Caden." She stopped mid-lecture and looked at me, her eyes still open wide, hands wrapped around the handle on her armoire. A slow smile spread, like a sunrise, lightening up her face.
"Thank you, Laurel. That means a lot." I smiled with a nod. I believed it, and wanted her to believe it.
I drove around the hospital parking lot, unbelievably busy even at the ridiculous hour in the morning that I had to be there. Finally spotting a Mercedes that was pulling out, I pushed on the gas, trying to get three rows over before anyone else grabbed it.
I pulled the brake, and sat for a moment, staring out the windshield of the Explorer, the massive building just at the end of the lot. Caden was already there, her family by her side, I imagined. I grabbed the book I'd brought to read, and headed out into the fresh morning air the was promising a beautiful day. I hoped that was a good omen for Caden.
Caden and I held eye contact across her massive room, the soft smile still planted firmly on her face when a knock sounded on the door.
"Come in." she called out, turning back to the armoire, pulling out a pair of flannel pants. She turned to me, "Want a pair to lounge around in? They're really comfortable."
I looked at what she held in her hand, never seeing flannel pants before. "Um, sure."
The bedroom door opened, and a tall, well-built guy walked in.
"Michael!" Caden exclaimed, running into awaiting arms. "My god! Mother didn't tell me you were coming home this weekend."
"Not a surprise now, is it?" the hug was large and strong. Finally Caden pulled away and turned to me, her hand still on his shoulder.
"Laurel, this is my brother, Michael Cooper Lodge."
My brows drew, not hearing her completely. "Gooper?" Michael chuckled, Caden looked at my like I'd lost my mind.
"No. Cooper." She said again, emphasizing the c sound. Feeling like a complete idiot, I blushed furiously, which made me feel even more stupid.
"Oh. Sorry. Hello, Michael Cooper Lodge. I'm Laurel Michelle Gleason." I stepped forward, my hand stretched toward him. He was a good-looking guy, tall like his sister, but his frame was thin like their mother. His hair was dark like Caden's, but his eyes were a strange green/gray mixture. He wore pressed khakis, and a sweater. He was clean cut, and looked like that all-American college student.
"Nice to meet you, Laurel. I'm Michael, or Gooper. Whichever you prefer." His smile was warm and inviting. Caden watched us, her eyes darting back and forth from one to the other. If I didn't know better, I'd think the wheels were turning in there. Oh, goodie. "Well, I'll leave you ladies for now. Caden, I'd like to have dinner with you and Laurel tonight, if you don't mind?" he looked from one to the other, smiling and winking at me before he turned his full attention to his sister.
"Oh, yes. Definitely. We can meet you in the non-formal in a bit if you want?"
"See you there."
My hiking boots made a loud thud on the highly polished floor as I made my way to the third floor. I carried a bouquet of fresh flowers in one hand, my novel in the other. Finally I found where I needed to be, and walked inside. The room was pretty stark of any color or adornments, save for a couple of plants and vases of flowers that had obviously been sent in for Caden. The narrow hospital bed was to the right, and a couple of uncomfortable-looking chairs next to the bed. I looked around to see who had already shown.
From the back she looked basically as she had so many years ago. Her brown hair was the exact same color, yet cut a bit shorter. She was about the same size. I figured in my head how old Margaret Lodge would be now, and figured in her mid-fifties somewhere. She stood next to the bed, arms crossed over her chest, which if I wasn't mistaken, seemed to have gotten larger.
Chuckling to myself, I noticed Michael Lodge Sr. was nowhere to be seen. It looked like it would just be Margaret and myself.
Caden laid in the bed, tubes already hooked into her, and to my shock, her entire head was shaved. I stared, unable to stop. Something I never thought I'd see. She wore a hospital gown, and looked very tired. Dark circles surrounded her eyes, which were half-hooded.
Not sure what to do, I walked into the room further, clearing my throat. Caden looked beyond her mother, and smiled when she saw me.
"Laurel." She said, her voice weak. She reached out an I.V. laden hand to me, which I nervously took as I reached the bed. Margaret stepped away from me, looking over at me, her face hard, expressionless.
"Good morning, Caden." I had absolutely no idea what to say to her. I was nervous for her surgery, yet knew it was the best thing. I was nervous to be there, and nervous as hell to be in the same room with that horrible woman who continued to look me and up and down, as if she were sizing me up for something. Gathering my courage, and swallowing the sour lump in my throat, I turned to Mrs. Lodge. "Hello. How are you? It's been a long time."
"Indeed. I'm doing well. And yourself? I understand you've quite the picture-taking business."
I stared at Margaret, not sure if what she said was meant to be a biting remark, or if it was just simply conversation. You never could tell with her, so I decided to play along.
"Yes. I'm up in San Diego, now. It's gone quite well. I enjoy it."
"That's good. One should do what one enjoys."
"Yes one should."
Nope. Still didn't like her.
"Laurel!" I turned in time to be engulfed in a monster hug, my eyes feeling like they were going to pop out of their sockets. Once finally put back down on the ground, I looked up into the handsome face of Michael Jr. A wide smile spread across my face.
"Hey, Gooper!" I lightly punched him in the arm, and got smacked in return. Rubbing my sore shoulder, I grinned up at him. "Good to see you."
"You too, squirt. You look great." He eyed me up and down, finally settling on my eyes.
"I hear you got married. Finally." We both chuckled. "That's wonderful. Congratulations."
"Thank you, thank you. Felicia is great. It took her five long years to convince me I needed to marry her, but I'm glad she did. We're expecting our first in November." A warm feeling coursed through me, followed by slight jealousy. Why is it that so many people in the world could find love and happiness, and so many others of us just aren't that lucky. Then I looked over at Caden, and felt like an ass for even thinking that. After all she'd been through with Troy, and now the brain tumor, at least I had my health. What good is love without it?
"How is the teaching going, Michael?" Caden asked weakly from behind us. Mike turned around, and walked to the bed.
"Hey, you. How are you, sweetie." He asked, kissing her lightly on the forehead. Caden smiled.
"I'm alright. Just glad this will be over with soon. Where is Felicia?"
"She's in class. She said she's sorry she couldn't be here this morning, but plans to be here when you wake up." Caden smiled, gently patting the side of her brother's face.
Caden turned back to me, beckoning me with her finger. I walked over to her, sitting in the chair next to her. I heard Margaret quickly moving out of the way with an irritated sigh.
"Hey, kid." I said, taking her hand in mine, covering it with my own. "How are you? When do you go in?"
"They should be here for me any minute. They gave me something to relax me, and I'm getting ever so tired." She yawned, shutting her eyes tight, then opened them, revealing those incredible blues to me once more. "Thank you so much for coming all this way for me. For this. You have no idea how much it means to me, Laurel."
"You inviting me here means a lot, too. I'm glad to be here for you. And just think," I ran my hand over the top of her newly shaved head. "The Sinéad O'Connor look is in, and you'll keep much cooler this summer."
"Ha, ha. You are quite the comic, aren't you?" I smiled, surprising myself by leaning down and giving her a small kiss on her forehead. As I stood back up, Caden's eyes were on mine, hers filled with unshed tears.
"I'm scared, Laurel." She whispered. I looked into the watery pools of blue, and brought a hand up, gently stroking the side of her face. I was amazed as, yet again, her usual calm and cool demeanor opened up to reveal the vulnerable soul beneath. So beautiful in its purity. Just like a child.
"Everything will be fine. You'll get through this, and be so much more stronger for it. We'll all be here when you get out."
"Will you stay?" she asked, her voice shaky as she tried to keep her emotions under control. I nodded.
"Of course." Caden smiled, reaching up to take my hand from her face, squeezing my fingers. Just as quickly as it had come, the openness was gone. She sniffled once, and her eyes began to clear.
"Mother?" I stood up, and stepped back, expecting her to call Margaret over to her bedside for her time with Caden. Mrs. Lodge, who had seated herself in the other chair, reading a magazine looked up over the pages, reading glasses perched on her nose. "Where is Annie? Isn't Troy bringing her by this morning before I go in?"
"Well, he told me it was all dependant on if the nanny gets there on time. He had a meeting early today."
"Why don't you go get her?" Michael said, brows drawn in a deep furrow. Margaret glared at her son.
"I'm not leaving here." She stated, slamming the magazine shut, tossing it to the floor. I watched on in surprise, looking from one to the other. "Besides, gas prices are so high right now,-"
"Mother!" Michael took a step toward his mother, but stopped when Caden put her hand out, touching his arm. I could see the muscles in his jaw working.
"Michael, it's okay. I can see her later." She said weakly.
"I can go get her, if you tell me where to go." I said, looking all around. Caden should see her daughter, and Annie certainly had a right to see her mother just in case, well, in case anything went wrong.
"You?" Margaret nearly spat.
"Well, I figure family should be here. I mean, I can run and get her, and try and be back before Caden goes in," my voice trailed off as I met three pairs of eyes staring at me.
"I can go." Michael volunteered. "Annie knows me." He stared hard at his mother, then turned toward me. "Why not come with me? The company would be nice."
I looked to my friend, it was her surgery, and I would do whatever she wanted. She nodded, smiling.
"Just please hurry." She said. I walked over to the bed, kissed her on the forehead again, and held her hand.
"Good luck, Caden. Everything will be fine."
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