by Kim Pritekel
If you'd like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am, or that I royally suck, feel free at: XenaNut@hotmail.com
Michael's BMW drove quietly and smoothly down the streets of Boston. It looked the same. Not much changed in the city. The first twenty minutes of the drive went by in silence, Mike concentrating on the mid-morning traffic, me watching the world go by. I thought about Caden, and her daughter Annie. Part of me was terrified to meet this child. Just yesterday her mother and I were just barely older than children ourselves. Or so it seemed.
I wondered if I should go see my mother and brother. Dad had died nearly four years ago. I hadn't gone to the funeral. He hadn't bothered coming to my college graduation, nor had he given a damn about anything but the bottle. He had let his bitterness and the all mighty drink kill him. Good riddance.
"So, seeing anyone?" I turned toward Gooper, thinking back to a time when he'd asked me the same exact question.
"Are you seeing anyone in particular, Laurel? You could be." Michael's gray eyes had been dancing with mischief.
I followed Caden to the "informal" dining room, which was still bigger than half the size of my house back in Southie. I looked around, marveling at the rich wood paneling on the walls, the large, expensive-looking Oriental rug under the beautiful dark wood table set for three, but able to seat as many as ten. The chandelier above the table sparkled with crystal prisms dangling down, catching any light in the room, and making it glow.
"Wow." I breathed. Caden smiled at me, and sat, motioning for me to join her. I couldn't help but stare. "You know, when you guys said the informal dining room, I figured it would be like a breakfast bar, or something." She chuckled.
"Nope. That's for the servants."
"Good evening, ladies." Michael walked through the archway, and sat across from me, a smile for both of us. I said nothing, just smiled. Back in those days being around any guy my age made me nervous and antsy. Michael Cooper Lodge III was no exception. "You guys hungry? How long have you been here?"
Caden clasped her hands on the edge of the table, sitting back in the high-back, comfy chairs.
"We got here this afternoon. How long are you staying?"
"Oh, I'm guessing until Sunday night. You?" he looked at us both. I kept my eyes pretty much on the setting before me, willing the cook, or maid, Jeeves the butler, or whoever it was that was supposed to serve us, to do just that. I was starving. Caden and Michael continued to talk, my mind was somewhere else.
When we had been upstairs in Caden's bedroom, she had decided to change her clothes. I had been sitting on the bed, looking around at her huge doll collection, all sitting in a locked case. Next to the massive case was a dollhouse, the house constructed to look just like the Lodge estate. I stood and walked over to it, also behind glass, and realized that it was made out of many of the same materials as the real thing.
"Wow." I breathed, looking into the side where it was open a bit.
"Would you like to see it?" asked a voice behind me. I turned, just in time to turn away. Caden stood there behind me in just her underwear an bra, her clothes in her hands. I didn't know what to do. Living in a college dorm, I had seen many girl in many different states of undress. But never Caden. We had been roomies for a full semester, but she was always very modest, and headed straight for the bathroom down the hall. I was red all over, and I knew it. I just hoped she hadn't noticed.
No such luck.
I slowly turned around, Caden standing there with a sweatshirt halfway to her head, her flannel pants fitted loosely around her hips. She was trim, flat stomach, her ribs showing just a bit. I nodded.
"Yeah. You just surprised me. You're always so modest back at school."
"Oh. Well," she quickly put the shirt on, fixing her hair after she poked her head through the neck hole. "It's just you here. I don't have to worry about anyone walking in on us or anything."
I sat at the dinner table, staring down at the china place setting in front of me, not even realizing that I was being stared at as if I had lost my mind.
"Laurel? Hello? Anybody home?"
My head snapped up, and I turned to see Caden staring at me, her brows drawn, the slightest bit of a smile on her face.
"Huh?" Caden nodded to my left where a woman stood, holding a tray, trying not to smile. I smiled up at her, feeling like a total idiot, and sat back away from the table, letting her place a dinner roll onto my plate.
"One or two, miss?" she asked.
"Two. Thank you." She looked at me strangely, then walked behind me, asking Caden the same thing.
"One. Anyway, Mike, the way I see it is, mom should not be playing with the staff." I looked at her, shocked at her manners, or lack there of. The young woman hurried around to Michael, and then scurried off for more food. Caden noticed me staring at her. "What?"
"You guys don't say thank you?"
"Why would we?" Michael asked, "She's just doing what my father pays her to do."
"Yeah, but. Well, I guess I'll just shut up now." Feeling incredibly stupid, I tore my roll in half, reached for the butter dish that sat in the middle of the table.
"No, no. Tell me why you say this." I looked up Michael's curious face, leaning forward in his seat to show his interest.
"Well, I mean I know she's being paid to serve you, but, okay. When you go to a restaurant do you thank the waiter or waitress?" both brother and sister looked at each other, then at me.
"No." Caden said. "Again, they are being paid for what they do. Why thank them for it?"
Stunned by what I was hearing, I concentrated on my friend, brows drawn. Can you be so rich that you forget about what people do for you? So spoiled that their hard work means nothing? Instead, I said,
"Think of it this way. Even though that waitress is getting paid for serving you, and she's not being paid squat to do it, she is still going out of her way to do a good job. Right?" both nodded. "So, why not thank her for effort and not just for the service?"
The swinging door that led to the kitchen opened, and the girl emerged, carrying a large tray of platters of food.
"Laurel?" I turned to see Michael staring at me, the BMW stopped at a red traffic light.
"Yeah?" he grinned.
"Where do you go when you disappear like that?" I grinned back with a shrug.
"Wherever my mind takes me."
"Must be nice." He turned back to traffic. "Nice mental vacation. Well, we're almost there. Are you excited to meet Annie?" Mike got the car moving again, trying to pass a truck that insisted on driving twenty miles an hour.
"Yes and no, to be honest. I'm nervous." I turned to him, meeting his gaze.
I shrugged. "I don't know. I guess Caden's pregnancy with Annie changed so many things for me then. Things I wasn't ready to change. Pretty selfish, huh?" I turned to him, looking for understanding of any kind. He chewed on his lip for a moment, just like his sister always used to do, thinking his response over.
"I guess I can understand that." He chuckled quietly. "You know, part of me really wanted you to go to Caden and Troy's wedding. I wanted to see you one last time. I knew chances of seeing you otherwise after that night, were slim to none."
"Yeah." I could still hear it in my head,
"Get out, you lying little bitch! How dare you lead my son on like that. You sinner!"
I shivered. A small ringing brought me out of my reverie. Michael reached into the breast pocket of his leather jacket, pulled out a tiny cell phone, pulling the antennae out with practiced ease using his teeth.
"Lodge here," he paused. "okay, yeah. Thanks. We'll take our time. Bye." The phone was put back into the pocket, and he turned to me. "That was my mother. They just took Caden into surgery."
My stomach lurched suddenly, and I was beginning to get worried. "Is anyone else there?" he shook his head.
"I don't think so. I'd be shocked if my father managed to make it on time." He turned the corner, and we entered onto a beautiful tree-lined street with expensive brownstones on either side, tiny immaculate gardens in front. "You never did answer my question." He grinned over at me. "Are you seeing anyone?"
I smiled, looking away from him for a moment, some kids playing ball near the street.
"Well, let's just say it's not very serious, but yes. There is a woman in my life."
"Really?" he pulled the Beemer to the curb, parallel parked in front of a large, three story. "How does that work with you girls, anyway?" he pulled the break, and turned off the engine, glancing at me.
"You mean dating?" he nodded. "Well, just imagine way back when, when you and Felicia were dating. Can you remember that?" he nodded again. "Good. Now take away the penis." Michael busted out laughed, throwing his head back.
"Okay." He chuckled, "You got me. Come on."
Troy's house was impressive, as I figured it would be. Nothing but the best for him. Troy Shepherd had to have the best. I stood in the foyer, not wanting to venture any further in; I could see enough from there. I felt nauseous as it was just being inside the house.
"See that painting over there?" Michael whispered, nodding toward a huge canvas with a bunch of odd colored pears on it. I nodded. "Troy paid a quarter of a million dollars for it."
"Why?" I whispered back, staring at the art work. "It's a painting of fruit." He shrugged, just in time to hear little feet plowing down the stairs. I looked up the narrow staircase to see a little version of Caden running at us, full force.
"Uncle Mike!" she exclaimed, running impossibly faster. I was so worried she would roll the rest of the way.
"Hey, munchkin!" Michael bent down, arms wide for her to throw herself into. I watched, stunned by the resemblance to my old friend. Annie eyed me over her uncle's shoulder, looking me up and down. Finally the little girl pulled away, and Michael stood up. She looked up at me, her dark hair brushed smooth down her back, shiny and healthy. She cocked her head to the side a bit, squinting up at me ever so slightly.
"You're my mommy's friend, Laurel, aren't you?"
"Um, well, yes I am." I stuttered. Intimidated by a nine year old? Get a grip, kid.
"I'm Annabel Margaret Shepherd. Nice to meet you, Laurel." She extended her small hand out, and I took it in my much larger one. Her skin was warm and soft. She pumped our hands up and down a couple of times, then dropped the shake.
"It's nice to meet you, too, Annabel."
"You can call me Annie. Most people do."
I smiled, charmed by the girl. She wore jeans that were rolled up at the ends, hiking boots poking out from the bottom. Her sweater was red with white and blue stripes. She was ready to go.
"Amy?" she yelled, looking up the stairs.
"I'm coming, I'm coming." Within moments, a young woman, no older than her early twenties, hurried down the stairs, a small suitcase in her hand. She wore a tight maid's uniform, complete with ruffled hat. I watched as her breasts bounced their way down the stairs, and nearly out of the bodice of the blouse. "Here you go, Annie. You be a good girl, okay?" she said, tapping the young girl's cheek lovingly. I glanced over to Michael to see what he thought of this woman. He was looking at me, the same look on his face that I felt. We turned back to the two.
"Okay. Tell daddy bye for me, and that I love him." Annie said, hugging the maid, and taking her suitcase in her small hand. The maid nodded.
"Of course, sweetie." She turned to Michael and I. "I hope she's okay." She said curtly, then headed back up the stairs. I watched her as she went, and it was Amy revealed. She was a good looking woman, but come on. There was a nine year old child there. I could tell Michael was annoyed, but he still managed to get an eyeful, however. Annie saw where we were both looking, and snickered.
"That's pretty common for her. Today she's dressed a little more." We both looked down at her, but she was already on her way to the front door. She stopped, her hand on the knob. "You guys coming?"
The dinner had been incredible. Never in my entire life had I eaten a steak so juicy and so tender. I felt like our dog back home, licking my chops. Throughout dinner the three of us had had some great conversation, talking about anything from politics to the coincidence that Michael was going to school at The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He was only an hour or so away from us at F&M. When he heard this, his eyes lit right up. After we finished eating, he turned to me.
"So, Laurel, care for a walk around the house? I can show you around," he was too cute. His face held so much hope. I couldn't help but say yes. So we walked. Caden came up with some lame excuse about having to talk to Mildred about ironing her shirts while she was home. "Shall we?" Michael held his arm out to me, and I took it. For the time being. Didn't want to be totally rude.
We walked around Margaret Lodge's prize-winning gardens. Roses were everywhere, their scent filling the night air, making it sweet mixed with all the other varieties of flowers and trees.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" I nodded, impressed beyond words. "My mother may have some serious flaws and faults, but she can definitely work some magic in a garden. We don't even have a gardener. She insists on doing it all herself. My father used to fight with her all the time about it." He grabbed a leaf from a tree we passed, began playing with it as we walked and he talked. "Personally I think my father is right. She shouldn't be out here digging around in the dirt."
"Why not? If she likes it,"
"My mother is a woman in society. We hire people to do this sort of thing." He indicated the beauty around us. "Do you know what all goes into a garden? It takes crawling around in the dirt like some animal, ruining clothing, and getting dirt and muck under her nails." I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I should have been used to such an attitude by then with what I had seen back at school, but it still surprised me. My mother would have done anything to have so much room to have the garden of her dreams. Instead she had a tiny plot of land outside the back door where she planted some flowers each year next to her few potted plants.
"You know, you may not like me too much after tonight, but I gotta tell you, Michael, I think you are so wrong." He looked down at me, his face showing his confusion.
"Well, I mean, what century do you think we're in, here? If it keeps her happy and busy, then where's the harm in it?" Michael shrugged, tossing the leaf to the ground, his hands sliding into the pockets of his slacks.
"I suppose. I just don't get it. So tell me about you. What do you want to do when you grow up?" he grinned at me. I shrugged.
"Be an artist, I guess. That's all I've ever wanted to do."
"Are you any good?"
"Yeah. Very good."
"Laurel?" my head snapped around to see Michael staring at me expectantly. When he saw he had my attention, he smiled. "What do you want?" I looked past him to see the menu board of a Burger King. "I always take Annie her for lunch. She loves this place."
"Caden is going to kill you." I smiled, remembering the health nut she used to be back in school. I wondered is she still was. Mike seemed to read my mind.
"She's still into all the greens and all that, but as an uncle, it is my civic duty to spoil my only niece rotten." He grinned at Annie over his shoulder.
"I never tell mommy. She never takes me to a place like this." The girl chimed in from the backseat. "Uncle Mike takes me here as often as twice a week!" I glanced back at Annie, seeing her toothy grin, however some of those teeth were very much gone. Her front two to be exact. She looked at me, realizing where my eyes were looking. "If you call me toothless wonder, I won't be responsible for what I do." My eyes shot up to her eyes, she was completely serious. It was probably not the right thing to do, but I couldn't stop the laughter that was bubbling up inside me. She stared at me as if I'd lost my mind. Quickly turning away from her, I faced the front again, trying to get the chuckling under control, but having a hard time. Finally straight again, I turned back to her. She glared at me, her arms crossed over her tiny chest.
"Do people call you that?" I asked. She nodded.
"Daddy calls me that all the time. I hate it."
"I'm sorry I laughed." I wanted to make peace with her now. She shrugged.
"That's okay. We all make mistakes." I just stared at her. What was this kid, nine going on thirty?
All the way to the hospital Annie talked on and on and on about her school, her best friend, Catherine, and her new nanny.
"Did you know, uncle Mike, that daddy and my nanny, Amy sleep in the same room?"
Michael nearly choked on his milk shake. He pulled the straw away from his mouth, coughing as I pounded on his back. Luckily the traffic light up ahead turned red, and he was able to get himself under control. He looked at his niece through the rearview.
"Oh, yeah. She moved in there right after he hired her."
I looked over at Michael, wondering if Caden knew about it. What would she think, knowing that her daughter was a little too smart for her own good?
We finally reached the hospital, and I was glad. I wanted to know how the surgery was progressing. Caden had been under for nearly two hours. The room Caden had been in was empty, the magazine Margaret had been reading sitting on the chair by the bed, the sheets pulled back, the wrinkled bedding the only indication anyone had been in there at all.
"Where is my mother?" Michael looked around the room, opening the bathroom door, then stepping out into the hall, looking both ways. Walking back into the room, he immediately took his cell phone from his jacket.
"Uh oh." Annie said, sitting herself down on the unmade bed.
"What's going on?" I asked, sitting next to the girl. She shrugged, staring at a flower arrangement on the night table.
"Grandma's in trouble, again."
Michael leaned against the doorframe of the room as he dialed, his face set in concentration. He put the tiny phone up to his ear, and waited. After a few seconds, he spoke.
"Mildred, is my mother there? Thank you." I could see his jaw clenching as he waited. "It's your son. Am I interrupting something? Good. Where the hell are you?"
I stared in shock as Mike laid into his mother. I wasn't sure what to do; stay and listen, leave the room, talk to Annie. Deciding I didn't belong there, the problems between Michael and his mother was absolutely none of my business, I stood from the bed.
"This happens a lot. Come on." Reading my mind, Annie hopped down from the hospital bed, walked toward the door. I followed. We walked down the hall in silence. I felt out of place, like I shouldn't be there at all. Annie walked on as if she owned the place, looking around, smiling at the nurse that passed us. I felt as if I should say something to her, get to know her a bit. She reminded me so much of her father.
"So, Annie. What grade are you in?" seemed a safe enough place to start.
"I'm a sixth grader at Washington Private School for girls."
"Sixth grader? Aren't you a little young for sixth grade?"
"Education is very important to mommy, so she taught me to read and write when I was young. I found school quite boring when I was still going to Brewster, so they advanced me a couple grades, and put me in Washington where it's a bit more challenging for me."
I looked down at Annie as we walked, saddened that Caden would try and get her daughter to all that she didn't. Was she pushing her child too far too fast? I thought it was great that Annie was obviously so intelligent, but I just had to wonder if she was being allowed to be a little girl, and not just a little person.
"What do you like to do for fun, Annie?"
"Fun?" she looked up at me as if I'd just spewed all over the waxed floor.
"Yeah. You know, do you go out to the mall with your friends, or go see movies,
We were making our way to a lobby area, and I saw a Coke machine. I headed off in that direction, Annie following.
"You read," I said, a statement more than a question. "That's great, but what else do you do for fun? Don't you have any friends at school?"
Annie shrugged. "No. Not really. I don't care to hang out with any of them. They're all snobby brats."
"Oh." I dug in my pant's pocket until I found some loose change. "What do you want?"
"A Sprite would be nice."
"Okay. Sprite it is." The coins slid into the slot as I pushed the big button for her soda.
"Mommy doesn't allow me to have soda." Annie said, standing back from the machine, arms crossed over her narrow chest. Even as she said it, I could see the longing in her blue eyes as she stared at the green can in my hand.
"How about this. It'll be my special treat to you today. Okay?" with a childish grin, she nodded, taking the offered soda from me.
"Thank you, Ms. Gleason."
"No, no. None of that "ms" crap." I slid another set of coins into the machine, pushing the DrPepper button. "You call me Laurel. Got it?" another grin and nod.
We found some chairs, and sat, sipping from our sodas. I could see that Annie had something on her mind, but decided to let her talk about it when she was ready.
"Where do you live?" she asked, eyeing me from the corner of her eye.
"I live in California."
"Where at in California?"
"Oh." Annie took another sip of her Sprite, that look of concentration back on her young face. "Are you married, Laurel?"
Here I thought the girl would tell me she was worried about her mother, or would ask if her mom was going to be okay. Oh no. The marriage question. I looked at her for a moment, long enough to make her look away, staring at the fascinating can she held in her hand. I wasn't sure how to handle the situation; should I just give her a basic no? Or did this warrant an explanation? I had no idea what Caden and Troy had told or taught Annie about me, or gays in general.
"Well, no, Annie I'm not."
"My daddy told me you don't like men. Is that true?"
"Well, yes. That is true." The girl turned away from me for a moment, staring at the man mopping the floor near the coffee maker, then sighed.
"Okay?" I looked at her again. I had no clue what to do, or where to take the conversation. Part of me wanted to beat the living shit out of Troy, but part of me was glad it was out.
"I think boys are kind of dorky, too." I looked down to see Annie grinning up at me. Cool kid. I liked her.
"There you two are. Come on. The doctor is looking for us." I looked up to see Michael nearly out of breath, standing in the doorway. He turned, and walked back out into the hall. I stood, followed by Annie, and hurried after him.
The drive back to the school was lively as Caden and I talked about our weekend at the Lodge House. I could not get over how massive and beautiful the place had been.
"I think my brother really was taken by you." Caden said, her eyes fixed on the dark road ahead of us, her little sports car maneuvering in and out of traffic.
"He's a nice guy." I said. I didn't want to add anything to her already made up mind of her brother and I as a happy couple. In truth, I liked Michael, and thought he was nice, and cute, but liked him as a friend. He was fun to talk to, and we had a lot in common.
"Yes, he is. He wants to come down and visit us next weekend." Caden looked at me from the side of her eye. I glanced over at her, not sure if she was serious or not. "That okay with you?" she fully looked at me, a half grin on her face.
"Sure. If Michael wants to come to F&M I have no problem with that."
"I think he's actually wanting to come down to see you more than me."
I smiled, but then looked out the side window. I wasn't so sure how I felt about such an honor. I had dated before, in high school, and had even had a somewhat steady boyfriend, but just wasn't interested anymore. Should Michael be forced to deal with my uncertainty? I just didn't know if that was fair.
We all sat silent, Michael sitting in a chair with Annie on his lap, me standing in the doorway, Margaret not far away against the wall. The doctor looked at each of us in turn, his aged features stone.
"Well, that's all I have for now. I'll be back shortly to tell you if she's snapped out of it, or if we're in it for the long haul. Unfortunately cerebral hemorrhage happens." With those words reverberating in my head, he left. We were all stunned into silence, not sure if it was wise to even breathe. Finally Margaret spoke.
"I'll call your father." She walked from the room, her hand over her mouth. I searched the room with my eyes, looking for anything to hold on to. Catching two tortured and worried gray eyes, I looked at Mike.
"You okay?" he nodded numbly. Annie wrapped her thin arms around his neck, and he pulled her to him for a tight hug.
"Mommy's not dead, is she?" she asked into his neck. Michael gently pulled her away so he could look into watery blue eyes.
"Oh no, sweetie. Mommy's not dead. She made it through the surgery okay, but then something bad happened, and she slipped into a coma. Do you know what that is, Annie?"
"It's where the person sleeps for a really long time, maybe never waking up." The girl said, her voice quiet and child-like. Michael nodded.
"Well, yes, and no. Your mommy is sleeping right now, but it won't be for a really long time." He looked up at me, his eyes filled with hope and unshed tears. I smiled, trying to give him any reassurance I could. He pulled his niece to him again, buried his face in her hair.
I walked the quiet halls of the hospital, my hands in my pockets as I looked straight ahead, my mind on Caden, not my surroundings. I didn't care where I was. Just as long as she woke up. It had been two days, and nothing. She was still in Intensive Care, but the doctors were hopeful that she'd be moved back to her room within a few days. Michael and I had been here most of the day, taking turns going to get something to eat, and taking Annie to her father's and back to the hospital. She held together well, only letting me see her cry once. Just like her mom.
I smiled as I walked, thinking again back to my time with Caden when we were younger.
Gooper began to come around more and more, the three of us going out and having tons of fun. He and I especially loved to play Frisbee at Long's Park . Caden hated to play, and would sit cross-legged on the grass watching us, a text book on her lap. Michael became one of my best friends, next to Caden, that is. She and I were inseparable. I taught her how to have fun, and she helped me with my homework. It was a great trade off.
"Come on, Caden!" I called from the sidewalk, look up at our dorm window. "We don't have all friggin' night!"
"I'm afraid." Was yelled back to me.
"You have got to be kidding me." I muttered, my hands on my hips, looking around at the students walking past me, staring at me as if I'd lost my mind, and the guys just staring. I glared at them before looking back up at the window. "You promised." I reminded. Finally Caden stuck her head out the window.
"I know. But I changed my mind."
"Come on!" I could see the barest bit of skin as the tops of her shoulders emerged. "Come on, wimp." Caden gave me one last glare, then disappeared from the window.
I grabbed the ends of the towel, wrapping it tighter around my hips when I saw Caden walk up to the doors of our building. I grinned, watching her look around to see who was possibly staring at her, which was just about everyone who passed.
"Come on," I beckoned with my hand to her, grinning like an idiot. Slowly, like a timid kitten to a new toy, Caden made her way out of the building, and over to me.
"I cannot believe you talked me into this." She said through clenched teeth.
"Ah, come on. It's not as bad as you're thinking. Jeez." I tucked the larger of my half-dozen sketch pads under my arm, and turned to head toward my car. I glanced back over my shoulder to see Caden standing right where I'd left her. Walking back to her, beginning to get a little worried. "Are you okay? Look, if you're really against this, we won't do it, okay?" I put my hand on her shoulder to try and calm her, and let her know I wouldn't be angry if she changed her mind. She stared at the ground for a moment, then with a deep breath looked me in the eye.
"Let's go." To my surprise, she led the way across the parking lot, standing next to my Bug waiting for me to unlock the door for her. With a shrug I followed, and we loaded into the small car.
I had never been to Cascade Park, but I'd heard of it, and was curious to see what kind of drawings I could get there. Supposedly it was not used often, most preferring Long's Park instead. Cascade was out of the way, and toward the edge of town.
"So, where are we going again?" Caden asked as she sipped her Pepsi we'd picked up with our lunch at Burger King.
"Oh. I've never heard of it." Caden looked out the open window, the late spring breeze blowing through, blowing her hair everywhere. She had such beautiful hair. I smiled at the back of her head before I turned back to the road, turning left, then straight ahead for a couple miles then, voila! Cascade Park right before us. The park wasn't large, but it was nice with lots of trees that would offer good shade from the heat, and good opportunities for different types of shadowing.
I pulled my Bug into the small make-shift dirt parking lot and began to unload my art supplies. Caden helped, looking around, tugging at the bottom of her bikini top.
"I feel so uncomfortable in this thing. I still can't believe you managed to get me in one of these things." I grinned up at her.
"Eh, you look really good in it, so don't complain." She looked at me doubtfully, but said nothing else until we found a place under a tall tree, the grass beneath it soft and green.
"So, why me?" Caden spread out the blanket that we'd brought, and plopped down on her stomach, unwrapping her burger. I sat across from her, crossing my legs under me as I munched on a fry. I shrugged.
"I don't know. You have really great featured, and the planes of your face are an artist's dream." Caden blushed slightly, looking away. "Oh, that is so cute." I was completely charmed by her shyness.
"Yeah, yeah. I'm so glad you're amused."
I grinned, and unwrapped my sandwich.
"How did you do on that test?" she asked around a bite of whopper. I nodded, trying to swallow to answer.
"Ood." I managed.
"See? I told you you could do it."
"Yeah. Thanks, cheerleader."
"Anytime." Caden gave me a great big grin, then tore another piece off her lunch with a huge smile in my direction. Shaking my head at her antics, I continued to eat.
In the year and a half that Caden and I had been roommates, she had begun to blossom as a person. I mean, she was still the quiet, respectable, proper girl she always had been, but she was also beginning to realize that not all of life had to be so serious. You could be determined, and alive all at the same time. Getting her out of the dorm in a pair of soccer shorts and a swimsuit top was the pentacle of my achievement to that point.
"Okay. Um, turn that way so you're looking into the sun. Don't look at me that way. It's only for a sec." Caden did as I said, and looked toward the setting sun. It was incredible the way the intense rays of the dying sun shone through her eyes, making them glow even more than usual. "Good. Okay now hold it."
I began to sketch, my hand working like mad to get the position from her before she moved. I studied her as I sketched, not just from an artist's point of view, but that of a woman. She was so naturally beautiful, and she had no idea. The bone structure of her face was so perfect to draw, as if she had been made for it; the sharpness of her cheekbones, the aquiline nose, squared off jaw, and of course the eyes. Brilliant in their own right.
Caden reached up to swipe her hair behind her ear, and my eyes began to travel further down to her neck, long and smooth. My eyes traveled even further to see the hollow of her throat, rising and falling with every breath she took, the straps of her top flattering against the paleness of her skin, her strong shoulders well shaped.
I stopped myself, and my eyes from going any further. This was my best friend and roommate. It wasn't right for me to look at her that way. Women, and the female body had always fascinated me, but not Caden's. Just couldn't be.
"What are you thinking?"
My head jerked up as I looked at my friend, her voice scaring the hell out of me, making me feel guilty for something I hadn't done.
"Oh, uh, nothing. Just thinking about the angle I want to use next." Yeah, right.
"Is it going well?"
"Yup. Getting there." My body heat had risen about a gazillion degrees. I made myself refocus on Caden's face again, and not allow my eyes to go any lower than the gold chain around her neck.
I sat in Caden's room, the machines softly beeping all around me, telling of her stability level, and how much she was hanging on to life. Dr. Gustov had been in earlier in the day saying that Caden was actually doing very well, considering. I had to wonder what his basis for comparison was. Still, I sat faithfully day in and day out, reading, sketching, whatever. Yesterday I had come in to find Margaret and Michael talking to the doctor.
"We must start radiation therapy now. Even in Caden's state, it is most important." I had watched as Margaret Lodge had signed the forms of consent. I hated standing idly by, not able to do a damn thing for her. So, I talked to her, instead.
'You know, when I decided to come out here, I planned on being here maybe a few days, a week at most." I chuckled, crossing my ankle over my knee as I stared out the window in Caden's private room. It looked like such a nice day outside. I hadn't been out since early that morning; I glanced at my watch, nearly three in the afternoon. With a sigh, I looked back at my friend, her head bandaged completely from her hairline to where her shoulders met her neck. Her eyes were closed, dark circles around them, her mouth open a bit, just the very bottom of her upper teeth could be seen. Tubes and machines were hooked up to her body in various places. Poor thing. That couldn't be comfortable.
I slapped my hands on my bouncing leg.
"I've been thinking a lot about different times in college, and different things we did together." I chuckled quietly. "Remember our days at Cascade Park? All those sketching sessions," my mind began to drift, and once again I saw our little scalded area behind Cascade Hill.
Summer was approaching, as was the end of the semester, but I decided against going home. My mother had called, asking, but I told her no. Caden had invited me to go home with her, and I jumped at the opportunity. But, before then, I continued to make sketches of my roommate. Every weekend we headed to the park, paper, pencil, and lunch basket in hand.
"Oh, it is so beautiful out here today." Caden exclaimed, raising her face and arms to the heavens, turning in a circle, the sarong around her hips blowing out around her like a party dress. She wore the bikini bathing suit beneath it, the sometimes stifling summer heat that was building, warranted as little clothing as possible. They were predicting an unusually hot one that year, with high humidity.
I wondered over to a good spot under a tree, and watched. On a whim, that day I had brought my camera with me. I grabbed it from around my neck, and opened the shutter, studying my unknowing subject until I had what looked to be a great shot, and clicked away. Hearing the camera go off, Caden stopped, and looked at me.
"What are you doing?"
"No, no. Keep moving."
"What do you want me to do?" she asked warily.
"Do whatever you want. Dance, walk, twirl, just keep moving. Try and forget that I'm even here."
"Yeah, that'll happen." Grumbling aside, Caden began to do as I asked, and actually made an exceptional object to photograph. She had such natural grace and agility, and was extremely photogenic.
I took Caden's hand, holding it within my own, stoking her fingers as I could still hear in my mind her laughter and my camera from that day. It had opened up my mind, and my life to the wonderful world of taking pictures.
"God, you were so beautiful, Caden." I nearly whispered as I saw it over again. "I could have drawn you, or snapped you all day, everyday. Still like to." I glanced down at her nearly colorless face and sighed. "So sad."
Soon what had started out as a nuisance to Caden became our ritual. Often times she would read or work on homework while I drew her. It was an amazing time.
During a particular session, Caden was chatting with me about what she had planned for us over the summer as I sketched, sitting on the grass, legs crossed Indian style, leaning back against the bark of a huge tree behind me. As I drew, my eyes began to wonder again. They wondered down to her shoulders. She had such beautiful skin, and by early June it had a healthy bronze coloring to it.
"Caden?" I sat up, gathering my hair into one hand, and putting it into a pony tail as I could feel the sweat on the back of my neck.
"I have got this huge urge to draw you from the shoulders up. Your bone structure is just so perfect." Caden looked down at herself, then back at me.
"Well, can't you draw me from the shoulders up like this?" her brow was furrowed.
"Well, yeah, but," I was trying to think of a way to say it so I didn't sound like some horrible pervert. I had to draw the bare skin without the annoying straps from her suit top. "Would you be willing to let me draw you with the straps down? That's really what I'm after." She looked at me doubtfully for just a moment, then to my surprise, reached behind her, untied the straps, and let them fall just to above her breasts where she held her top in place. I stared, completely shocked, my hand laying limp in my lap on top of the page I was working on.
"Are you going to draw?" Caden's voice was quiet, nervous.
"Yeah." I quickly pulled myself together, and began to sketch. My eyes roamed over what had been revealed to me, the sharp contrast of the soft skin and the well defined collar bone, the shoulders rounded and strong, yet delicate at the same time.
"I think I fell in love that day." I sighed deeply, squeezing the limp hand in mine. "So beautiful." I glanced out the window again, and noticed that the sun was beginning to lower. "Well, I'll be back, Caden. The next shift is due in here any time, then I'll be back after dinner, okay?" I stood, leaning over the bed, and gently kissed her on the forehead, just below her bandage. "Sleep well, my friend." I smiled weakly at my poor joke, and stepped out of the room just as Margaret was walking in, nearly plowing her over.
"Oh." She looked at me, the surprise quickly covered by apathy. "You're still here?" a statement more than a question.
"Yes. I don't plan to leave until I know she's going to be okay." Margaret stared at me for a moment, as if she were digesting what I had said. Finally with a nod, she moved aside, allowing me to pass. I walked out of the room, but stopped at the sound of her voice. "Will you be back tonight, then?"
"Yes. I'll be back in about an hour. My cell phone number is on the side table if anything should,"
I fond a near-bye café, and got myself a table by the window. I slowly sipped my coffee, relieved to be away from the hospital for a moment. I hated hospitals, and what they represented. I thought back to when my older brother, Phillip, had nearly had his skull crushed in when he had fallen off the back of a truck that he and his drunk friends were riding in, the driver, just as drunk, attempting to do doughnuts in the parking lot of a closed market. The Gleason household had received a phone call at three-thirty in the morning from St. Mary's hospital. I could still recall the horrifying sight of my brother lying there, his clothes covered in blood, hand arms scraped and bruised, the bandage on his head already nearly soaked through with blood.
Shivering, I turned back to the half eaten meal in front of me. Suddenly my pancakes didn't seem so appetizing anymore. I pushed the plate away, and grabbed my check off the edge of the table.
The Lodge Estate never failed to leave me in awe. As Caden once again drove her Porsche through the wrought iron gates, I felt as if I were seeing it for the first time all over again. So beautiful and picturesque.
"My mother is on her annual spa trip with her girlfriends, and my father will be gone for all of June, and I think he's supposed to return mid-July." She turned to me then, giving me a sly grin. "Michael is supposed to join us, too."
I snickered at that. "Gooper can't keep up with us."
"I'm sure he'll try."
I couldn't understand why she was so determined to get me and Michael together. He had visited the F&M campus off an on during the last year, and we had had fun, but I just wasn't sure. I liked him, but just didn't know if I could like him in the way that both Michael and Caden wanted me to. I would give it my best shot, try and see him in a different way over the summer.
Mildred met us at the door just as she had the time before, giving me a full hug along with Caden.
"Hello, Miss. Laurel. So nice to see you again." She gave me a warm smile with a light squeeze to my arm.
"Thanks. It's real nice to see you, too, Mildred." She patted my back, taking my bags from me.
"In the guest room in your wing, Miss Caden?"
"Yes. Thank you, Mildred."
I looked at Caden, a surprised smile on my face.
"Nothing. Just glad to hear a thank you exit from your lips." She stuck her tongue out at me.
I drove back to the hospital, memories from that summer playing through my head. Spotting a parking space that wasn't quite as far off in Africa as the place before I left, I hurried to the row, and pulled in, shutting the engine off, and once again staring at the huge building before me.
The front lobby was busy as I made my way to the elevators, and the third floor, back to Caden's room. Margaret sat, talking to a formidable-looking man who stood in the center of the room, arms crossed over his chest. He wore an expensive suit that was well-fitted, and completely out of place.
As I walked through the door to the room, they both looked at me, conversation at an end.
"Hello, Mr. Lodge." I said, trying to smile through my discomfort.
"Laurel." Michael Sr. turned to his wife. "I should be back by Sunday." He kissed her quickly on the cheek, nodded at me, then brushed by me, the scent of his cologne following him. I watched him go, then turned to Margaret with a partial grin.
"Mr. Lodge hasn't aged a day."
"He'd kiss you if he heard you say that." She said dryly, gathering her knitting, and putting it back into its carrying bag. "No change. The doctor said Caden's signs are good and strong." She stood, looking me in the eye. Could it be? Was she actually being cordial?
"Okay. That's good to know. I'm sorry I took so long,"
"Not a problem. I managed just fine all by my lonesome." She headed toward the door. "I should be back later." And was gone.
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