a/n: warning you now – this is horrifically long. as some of you know, i recently took down a one-shot called 'we all need saving' for a number of reasons – this is the rewrite of that. i was really nervous about publishing this, b/c i felt like it wasn't worth another shot – but here it is. some parts remain the same, others were added/removed, others have been reworked. i hope you enjoy this, even if not as much as the first one. it's sort of split into 3 parts (not sure why, though :P) – and any thoughts are welcome and appreciated!
special thank-yous to PurpleAngel87, souvenirs, & risingandfallen, who i talked to about this story and were all so nice as to read it over. you helped enormously and i can't thank you guys enough – so this one's for you. you're the best, Anjali, Dorothy, and Adrienne! ;) oh and also, the lyrics are from Heartbreak World, by Matt Nathanson.
pairings: sort of up to you. there are no real official pairings in this, but it's shane/mitchie and shane/caitlyn. i suppose you can decide what happens. :)
i. let's all pack up and move this year, we'll slip the lines and disappear.
That summer blurred together like memories and faded last goodbyes and mostly, Caitlyn still wishes it had never ended. Sometimes, the sounds still linger on her skin and she can hear her best friend's laugh, the sizzle of pancakes on Sunday morning. She hates living in the past but somehow she's stuck there, and sometimes all she can do is wish that she'd been able to fix everything. Save everything.
People used to always say that Mitchie and Caitlyn were polar opposites. Mitchie was all laughs and innocent giggles, straight brown hair and so vibrant. She was radiance and the season of spring, easy to break through to. Caitlyn was the closed one, all quiet scrutiny and bitter, bitter, bitter. She lived in shadows (Mitchie's) and distant, far-off places. She didn't know how else to be – and sometimes she wanted more than anything to be like Mitchie, even though the very thought scared her out of her mind.
People who didn't know them well used to widen their eyes and shake their heads, disbelieving. A nervous chuckle, followed by a furrow of the brow. Mitchie Torres and Caitlyn Gellar? They're best friends?
But Caitlyn found that once Mitchie was gone, she didn't know what she wanted anymore.
Looking back on it now, Caitlyn realized things hadn't changed much since she and Mitchie first met. Somehow, from the very beginning, Caitlyn had lined herself up as Mitchie's protector without even meaning to.
It was in elementary school, and Mitchie was the new girl. Even then, she was bright-eyed and naïve, an easy target. Caitlyn had laughed along with everybody else when boys had tugged at her pigtails and girls giggled behind their hands. If it were any other girl, she probably would have been right up there with the other kids teasing her. But there was something in the determined look on Mitchie's face that made her change her mind. She stood there and took it, letting the laughs roll off her back and unwilling to back down.
So Caitlyn rolled her eyes and marched up to the front of the classroom, grabbing Mitchie's arm and tugging her back towards her seat. She thrust her into the chair and hissed, "Are you stupid? Get out of the way – you can't let 'em just walk all over you!"
A slow blush bloomed across her face as Mitchie looked up shyly from her hands. She stared up at Caitlyn carefully, as if trying to read her mind. Finally, she bit her lip gently and grinned.
"Hi, I'm Mitchie."
The first night of the summer, Mitchie stopped by Caitlyn's house as usual. She stood at Caitlyn's doorstep and when the door swung open, she didn't even wait for Caitlyn to say hello.
"Caity," she wheedled, "you already know what I'm going to ask. Please come?"
Caitlyn just laughed. "I'm tired, Mitch. Plus, there'll be so many more parties this summer, right?"
Mitchie opened her mouth as if to protest, but then closed it again and sighed. She told herself that these sort of parties were really just not Caitlyn's scene, and it would be better like this. Caitlyn knew that really, it wasn't because of the parties themselves – it was the people. She could have been one of them, easily. She could host parties and skip classes and have multiple boyfriends, but after a while she knew she'd just stop caring. And Caitlyn will never be like those girls, some sort of sick, twisted joke that Mitchie so desperately wants to be a part of. They are young, beautiful, and unattached, and when Caitlyn is around them she has to stop herself from jumping up on a table and screaming.
It'd be better if all of it was just a pretty façade but it wasn't – their broken smiles and breathy giggles were really all they had.
No thanks, Caitlyn thought, I'd rather not.
Once, when they were in middle school, Mitchie ran away from home.
She didn't do it because she hated her parents, or because she got sick and tired of things. She knew she was too old for such a thing like that, for packing suitcases and camping out in local parks. But she planned it anyway, for reasons Caitlyn didn't and couldn't understand. In her eyes, Mitchie had everything.
She told Caitlyn during their lunch period and she had scoffed, wrinkling her nose.
"Why would you want to do that?" (please, take me with you)
Mitchie had just smiled, and Caitlyn had laughed it off as a joke. That night, Caitlyn's mom got a phone call during dinner and Caitlyn could almost hear Mitchie's mom on the other end, echoing and frantic.
"You'll find her, Connie," Caitlyn's mom had said, "We'll find her."
Caitlyn dropped her fork on the tiled floors and ran upstairs to her room. God, Mitchie, she thought, when are you just going to grow up?
Mitchie was too old for even the police to panic until she'd been missing 24 hours, and so Connie sent out a neighborhood search party. The sun went down and the streets were illuminated by flashlights, casting flickering shadows across the pavement. Caitlyn told herself she couldn't care less, because this was all Mitchie's fault and she would have to find her own way back. She paced back and forth in her room for another hour before she gave up and tugged on her shoes, grabbing her own flashlight and sneaking out the window.
In the end, she didn't really need the flashlight.
She found Mitchie sitting on the hill behind the playground, half hidden in the darkness of the trees. Part of her wanted to hit Mitchie for being so childish, so dumb, and another part wanted to ask her why she hadn't asked her to come. Instead, she clenched her jaw and slid down wordlessly next to Mitchie.
Mitchie didn't even look up, as if she'd been expecting Caitlyn all along. They lay down in the dewy grass, the water soaking through their clothes in silence. Caitlyn counted the stars in her head until she lost track and they left traces of light in her head, so that when she closed her eyes she could still see them. It was so dark that she vaguely wondered where the earth ended and where the night begun. The black was everywhere, almost suffocating and Caitlyn thought they could lie there forever and no one would find them. Somewhere behind them someone was calling Mitchie's name, but neither of them made a move.
"Don't you wanna go back now, Mitchie?"
Mitchie paused before speaking, not even seeming to hear Caitlyn's question.
"My dad used to say all these really dumb phrases," Mitchie said, and Caitlyn could almost hear the way the corners of her mouth tilted upwards as she spoke. "Weird things, sort of nonsensical things. Like – when I'd leave the house for school, he'd look up from his coffee and say, 'Hey Mitch, say hello to the sun for me!' Or I'd go out for a bike ride, and he'd remind me, 'Don't forget to kiss the sky, Mitchie!'"
Caitlyn snorted skeptically. "Kiss the sky?"
"Yeah," Mitchie laughed, "kiss the sky."
The two of them fell silent, and then Caitlyn felt Mitchie's hand clasp around hers.
"I'm ready, Cait," she whispered, "let's go home."
Sometimes, Caitlyn still wakes up in the middle of the night and hears her phone ringing off in the distance. Her hands close around air and she can hear Mitchie's giggle reverberating off the walls.
"Caity, please? Just pick me up this one last time, I swear."
Her voice is a little bit slurred as usual, and everything sounds static-y and almost like a nightmare. She used to stare up at the ceiling and roll over in bed, groaning half-heartedly. Sometimes, she'd think about saying no, leaving Mitchie to fend for herself. But in the end, she'd wait for her vision to clear and she'd sigh and nod, even though no one could see her.
"This is the last time, Mitchie."
And Mitchie would sigh in relief and whisper thank-yous into the phone, humming tuneless melodies that rang in Caitlyn's ears for hours afterward.
"You're a life-saver, Cait," she'd say, "I'm so glad you're my best friend."
And Caitlyn would nod again, closing her eyes. She'd sit up and slide out of bed, still holding the phone to her ear. She'd pull on her jacket and when the connection died, she'd snap the phone shut and whisper an answer to no one at all.
"I'm glad too."
On occasion, Caitlyn would agree to pick up Mitchie just so she'd have an excuse to drive through the darkened streets, the lampposts throwing eerie shadows across the lawns. There was something about the breeze and the moist air that made her feel alive, made her feel like she was going somewhere and planning things. Maybe this was what it was like to be Mitchie, to feel the night stretch out in front of you full of endless possibilities. To feel that maybe, for tonight, yesterday wouldn't matter and tomorrow was out of reach.
Caitlyn would roll down the windows and turn up the music – Chopin, Schubert, Vivaldi, Mendelssohn. She'd imagine that maybe the melodies would wind their way through the town, creeping through windows and painting pictures in people's dreams.
And then she'd turn the corner and pull into the driveway of whichever party it was that night, switching off the music before anybody could hear. Because a girl like her wasn't supposed to dream, wasn't supposed to imagine, wasn't supposed to listen to classical music.
That summer, that first night, Caitlyn swung her truck up to the house of the address Mitchie had given her to find Mitchie waiting outside with somebody else. Caitlyn squinted, and then turned down her music a second too late.
The two figures on the porch stood up, one holding onto the other for support. Mitchie's giggles rang through the air like a secret, hushed and carefree. Caitlyn tried to remember if she'd ever giggled like that in her life, ever let her guard down like that. If she'd ever let someone see her that vulnerable, if she'd ever leaned on someone else.
She didn't think so.
She sighed and stepped out of the car, slamming the door behind her. She pulled her sweater a little bit tighter around her as she neared the porch, smiling weakly at her best friend. Mitchie squealed and stumbled, reaching for Caitlyn.
"I'll take it from here," Caitlyn muttered at the boy Mitchie was clutching, not bothering to look him in the eyes.
"You sure?" he asked, and Caitlyn's head jerked up in surprise. His voice scared her – raw and laced with something like sincerity. She stepped back slightly and his brow furrowed before he looked back at her in surprise. His eyes hovered above dark bags, wrinkles crumpling at the corners as he smirked. She stared just a little too long, trying to remember where she'd seen that expression before, why it looked so familiar. The throbbing beat of the party music pulsed behind them, pounding at Caitlyn in all directions.
And then Mitchie let out another giggle and his voice and eyes were forgotten as Caitlyn winced and steadied her friend. She dragged her towards the car, sliding her into the passenger seat and buckling her in. The boy was still standing on the porch, grinning at the two of them. Caitlyn opened her mouth to say something, thank you, anything. And when nothing came out, she bit her lip and let her bangs fall into her face, getting into the car.
She shoved the keys in the ignition with Mitchie slumped over in her seat and with the boy still staring at her, that smirk tugging at his lips.
And as she started to pull out of the driveway, the boy chuckled, low and amused.
"I would have never guessed you were a Chopin kind of girl."
The Friday after that, Caitlyn was over at Mitchie's house, sitting at her kitchen counter and absentmindedly flipping through a magazine. Mitchie was in the middle of telling Caitlyn how great this summer was going to be when the doorbell rang.
"Can you get that?" Mitchie asked, busy taking a sheet of chocolate-chip cookies out of the oven. Caitlyn nodded and made her way over to the entrance, opening the door.
She took an involuntary step back as the boy in the doorway let out a chuckle. She groaned inwardly as he took in her messy ponytail, ratty sweatpants, and the faded apron tied snugly around her waist.
"Hey Chopin," he smirked, "were you…baking?"
"What are you doing here?" she asked, her tone accusing and harsh as she sidestepped his question. His grin seemed to widen at this and Caitlyn frowned, untying the apron.
"Mitchie invited me," he said innocently, pulling out a set of DVDs from his coat pocket as proof. "Didn't she tell you?"
Right on cue, Mitchie pranced out from the kitchen, grinning and flinging her arms around the boy.
"Caity, meet Shane," she grinned, stepping back and beaming at the boy. Caitlyn was ready to roll her eyes when she saw the way he looked at Mitchie – softer, a more muted glance. Even his smile seemed lighter and frayed around the edges, as if he were underwater.
"We've met," Shane chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck. Caitlyn blinked.
"You don't mind then, do you Caity? I know our movie nights are usually just the two of us, but I figured…it'd be okay. You'll like him, I swear!"
Caitlyn frowned, an eyebrow arching slightly. "I—" she paused, looking away. "Um, you know what? I…I should get going. I have something…to do anyways. I'll see you later, okay Mitch?"
She smiled half-heartedly and grabbed her jacket, sliding out the door before Mitchie could answer.
For the next few weeks, it seemed that Caitlyn and Mitchie saw each other only fleetingly. Caitlyn would show up at Mitchie's house to find that Shane was already there, or Mitchie would come to Caitlyn's house and they'd find that they didn't really have anything to say to each other. Caitlyn briefly thought to herself that this wasn't really shaping up to be the great summer they'd planned – but there didn't really seem to be much she could do about it.
One Saturday, as Mitchie was leaving Caitlyn's house after another night of forced conversation, Caitlyn stopped her.
"Do you like him?" she asked bluntly, never the type to sugarcoat things.
Mitchie jumped slightly, freezing in the doorway. She turned slowly, all startled eyes and pursed lips. Her brow furrowed carefully and Caitlyn looked down at her feet, because her hesitation was enough.
"I – he's…different, Caity."
Caitlyn swallowed dryly, a bitter laugh escaping from her lips. "Different?"
"I just…he's real, I know it."
Caitlyn tried to get the words out, words she couldn't make sense of. Her mind spat warnings in all directions, hoping Mitchie would get the signals. He's not any different, be careful, he's the same, they're all the same, don't you know that already? But the words got stuck somewhere along their path and Caitlyn choked on her own thoughts, so that she ended up staring at Mitchie blankly.
"I know you don't believe me, Caitlyn," Mitchie said softly, "but will you just…try to trust me on this one?"
She nodded, but she didn't really believe her, believe him. Not then.
"Just…give him a chance. You'll see."
A month after Mitchie met Shane, Caitlyn slept over at Mitchie's and woke up to find Shane making pancakes in Mitchie's kitchen.
She didn't bother asking.
She made to turn back around and run up the stairs, but he glanced up and shot her the smallest of smiles – so brief that it could have been a trick of the light. She hesitated before sitting down at the counter, staring at the bowl of pancake batter and watching Shane stir the spoon in endless circles.
"You don't like me much, do you?"
He said it so plainly that Caitlyn almost missed it. His hands continued to beat the batter, and his head cocked slightly to the left in a question.
"That's not it," she said, trying to sound equally nonchalant. Instead, her voice shook and she sounded nervous and defensive. He grinned, still not looking up from the bowl as he stirred. Caitlyn tried to ignore the fact that her heart probably skipped a beat.
"So what is it?"
He looked up from the batter abruptly, and this time Caitlyn's heart definitely skipped a beat. His eyes bore into hers and he squinted a little, his lips parting as he stared. Caitlyn tried to look straight back at him, but she shifted uncomfortably under his gaze and he smiled in triumph.
"I get it. You don't trust me."
"I – what?"
"So Chopin, do you trust anyone at all?"
Caitlyn blinked, not even noticing the usage of her hated nickname. She almost blurted, "Of course!", but she paused for a moment and she realized those words would feel wrong on her lips. For some reason, she felt the need to answer this question honestly.
"Mitchie," she said slowly, her voice dropping to a hoarse whisper, "and myself."
He gave her an appraising look, and then his head slowly dipped down in a nod, as if he'd known it all along.
And then his hands went back to the pancake batter and Caitlyn continued to stare, watching the spoon go around and around.
Weeks passed without incident, and Caitlyn was almost starting to wish she could fast forward through July and August. So when Mitchie called and asked if Caitlyn wanted to go to a party, it only took a little convincing before she relented. They drove there in Shane's van, Caitlyn pretending to sulk the entire way over as Mitchie just laughed and told her, "They're not so bad, Cait."
They entered through the backyard, where people floated restlessly around drinking from plastic cups. Shane had somehow disappeared as soon as they had arrived, and Mitchie flung herself into the crowd. Caitlyn couldn't help but notice how at home the both of them seemed, the effortless way they believed that they belonged (everywhere) while Caitlyn knew that she never would.
An hour passed and Caitlyn was thinking of leaving on her own when she caught a glimpse of Mitchie's purple top in the throng. Mitchie's giggle echoed through the backyard, loose and bubbly and Caitlyn couldn't help but turn and push her way through the pack, just to get a glimpse of that carefree image she could never know.
"You're so funny," Mitchie trilled, swaying unsteadily on her feet and lurching towards the boy in front of her.
The scene was almost unnerving to Caitlyn – too loud, too close. And it was all wrong, this was not what Mitchie's giggle had suggested and this was not what Caitlyn had wanted to see. A loud chorus of drunken snickers directed at Mitchie went up in the background, but she only seemed to brighten at this. She beamed up at the boy as she latched onto him for support, laughing along with everyone else. Her giggles floated above the rest and Caitlyn found herself shoving her way through the people in fury, angry because they were laughing at her best friend, angry because her image of Mitchie was shattered. She caught sight of the boy, smirking down at Mitchie and sniggering silently along with his friends. He hissed insults Mitchie didn't understand and Caitlyn didn't want to hear, arrogant and drawn-out. She was stepping forward without thought when someone grabbed the boy by the shoulder.
"Hey," Shane growled, his eyes darkening as his grip tightened on the boy, "you think you're real funny, don't you?"
A cocky grin spread across the boy's face. "Well, look for yourself, man. Tell me this chick isn't fucking hilarious, am I right?"
There was a flash in Shane's eyes and then before Caitlyn knew what was happening, the crowd was gasping as a blow hit the boy in the jaw and he crumpled to his knees.
"Let's go," Shane murmured gruffly, pulling Mitchie's arm around his shoulder. The crowd shuffled out of the way as Shane and Mitchie made their exit. Caitlyn stood frozen in the same spot for a moment, feeling like she'd missed out on something.
And then a series of belated, angry shouts went up in the backyard and Caitlyn ran after them, following the drifting sound of Mitchie's ever-present giggles.
Mitchie fell asleep in the backseat of the van and they drove in silence, Shane staring stony-faced at the road. Caitlyn stared too, searching for something to look at, to stare at (anything but him). The silence was almost deafening and her ears rang, remainders of the music beating in her ears. Suddenly she felt the need to hear something real, anything to feel grounded again.
"I could've helped her," she whispered, and it was so good to hear her own voice that for a moment she didn't realize what she'd said. Her eyes fell on Shane's hands and she watched them stiffen as his gaze broke from the road.
He turned slowly to look at her, his eyes boring holes into the side of her face. She wanted desperately to look back but her eyes stayed glued on his hands, clenching and unclenching around the wheel. Finally, he pulled his glance away from her and laughed, low and bitter.
"Well, then tell me, what did you want me to do? Did you want me to stand there and let that jerk– those jerks to circle around and laugh at her? Let her laugh at herself, wait around for you to show up and be her hero?"
He spat out his last words and Caitlyn flushed, shrinking back. Her mouth opened automatically to whip something back at him, but nothing came out. Fuck you, she wanted to say, nobody asked you. We don't need you, she doesn't need you – I don't need you. We don't need your pity – especially not from you. Never from you.
"I hate you," she exhaled, and at that moment she really did. She was shaking and she didn't understand why she was so upset, how this stupid boy got her so worked up over a few well-chosen words. Still, she was surprised by her own voice, the way the sentence slipped easily from her grasp. And she knew it wasn't really right to be saying these things to a boy who stood up for her best friend, but she had to stand up for herself too, right? And why, why was it wrong for Caitlyn to want to be Mitchie's hero?
Maybe that's all she'd ever been, all she'd ever had.
The car fell silent again and this time Caitlyn didn't notice, her own angry words still echoing in the car. Her fingers twitched and she clenched them into fists, biting down hard on her lip.
"I know," he whispered suddenly, so hushed that Caitlyn almost missed it. Her body tensed again but she kept her gaze away from him, looking out the window. She pictured him in her mind instead, fingers gripping the steering wheel as he pushed down on the gas. His next words were even lower, duller, so that Caitlyn had to strain to hear them.
"I know you hate me. And I know you could've helped her," he murmured, turning slowly to face her, "but you're her best friend. Nobody's going to mess that up."
For a moment, she heard his half-whispers and wanted to believe him. Her anger faded and she wished with all her heart that what he had said was true, that she really could've helped her and nobody would ever mess that up. But then she took one glance around the dim car and thought of the party, the happy noises and the careless laughter. He's Mitchie's friend, not yours, Caitlyn thought to herself, and this is Mitchie's world, not yours.
They drove the rest of the way home without speaking – but somehow, it didn't seem so silent anymore.
Caitlyn avoided Mitchie and Shane for an entire month. Every night when Mitchie called, Caitlyn decided she'd pick up tomorrow. She'd talk to Mitchie tomorrow.
And she felt awful because Mitchie didn't do a thing wrong (she didn't, Caitlyn tried to convince herself, she really didn't) but Caitlyn just couldn't bring herself to face her. She sat in her room and read piles and piles of books that she'd never even heard of. She cooked strange meals and took bike rides around her neighborhood and even babysat a time or two.
She told herself she did these things because she had nothing better to do, not because she was trying to find herself. She did these things because she was bored out of her mind and not because she wanted to define herself away from Mitchie's terms. She did these things because she wanted to try something new, and not because she didn't know what she was other than Mitchie's best friend, Mitchie's hero.
It wasn't because of that.
Somehow, August rolled around and Caitlyn wondered where the summer had gone. Years later, she'd wonder what would have happened if she'd done things differently. If she'd tried to stop her that last night (please Mitchie, stay with me), if she'd spoken up, if she'd gone along with it. As things happened, she didn't. She never did.
Sometimes she still replays the scene in her head – the way Mitchie showed up at her door, the half-teasing, half-pleading expression on her face. The air smelled like fresh cut grass and summer and maybe even happiness and now it all makes her sick. She can still hear the smile in Mitchie's voice and see the tilt of her head, the shuffle of her feet.
"Come on Caity, it's the last week of summer. Please come tonight?"
Caitlyn stared blankly past her for the longest time, until Mitchie's smile drooped a little at the corners. She remembers the exact shade of the sky, a mix of dark purples and blues that reminded Caitlyn of a bruise. A breeze blew past the house and Caitlyn shivered even though the air was warm.
"Mitchie," Caitlyn breathed, and she thought she might not even recognize her because she'd spent the last month trying to erase her a little bit. "What are you doi—hi, Mitchie."
Mitchie's smile lifted up again, but it was a little shaky and Caitlyn pretended not to know why.
"Look, come tonight, and I won't ask you where you've been this last month. I'll pretend you haven't ignored my calls and my texts, because you're still my best friend and you always will be, Caity."
"Oh," Caitlyn said weakly, "Mitchie, I just…you'll have more fun without me, anyways. You always have fun, Mitch."
For a moment, Caitlyn imagined tears, or Mitchie breaking down in front of her. But instead there was a brief nod and a smile, and somehow that was worse. Caitlyn's hands tightened around the doorknob for support and she vaguely realized she couldn't even tell whether Mitchie's smile was an act or not. She wanted to grab her by the shoulders and kick and scream and shake her until maybe she would understand. But she knew that Mitchie would just stand there and take it, and that would be worst of all – because then Caitlyn would be just another girl Mitchie let walk all over her.
Goddamn it, Caitlyn wanted to say, get mad at me. Do something. Tell me you hate me, tell me I'm a bitch for ignoring you.
"You're right, Cait. I do have fun," she said, and Caitlyn wanted to cry because it sounded wistful and sorry, full of regret. "Well…next time then, okay?"
And Caitlyn held on a little tighter to the door so her knees wouldn't buckle as she smiled and nodded, even though they both knew she didn't really mean it. She wondered if Mitchie could tell if hers was an act too, because right then she really, really hated Mitchie. Something stung at the back of her throat and she slid off her bracelet without thinking, crumpling it up in her fist and offering it to Mitchie. (Take it with you. Take me with you.)
"Okay Mitch," she whispered, "Next time."
So Caitlyn watches this memory over and over in her mind, until Mitchie's smile starts to blur and she forgets what her voice sounded like. And to this day, she thinks she'd give it all up if she could just go back in time and change that one moment. She wishes desperately that she could erase those words, change them for herself and change them selfishly – make it so that maybe, maybe her last words to her best friend wouldn't be something they both knew was a lie.
ii. they'll miss the taste of wanting you, call out your name like i still do.
Caitlyn won't refer to what happened as other than 'that night'. That night, that last night. She doesn't understand why she didn't have a premonition about it, why she didn't feel any sense of foreboding at all. She'd always imagined that she'd be the one to foresee something like this, to stop it before it could happen.
She went back to her room, opening the windows and watching as Mitchie got into Shane's van and they drove away. She turned off all the lights and put a Chopin CD in her discman, closing her eyes. She fell asleep like that without planning to, wondering if Mitchie would ever grow up (never).
She didn't know how long she'd been asleep when she woke to the sound of her phone ringing. It was dark out and she rolled over in her sleep, reaching for the phone on instinct. For some reason, she stared at the walls for a second longer before she picked it up, letting her eyes adjust to the light. It would be Mitchie again, of course, calling for a ride from the party Caitlyn refused to go to. For once, Caitlyn wished that maybe she'd had a more responsible best friend, one who could take care of herself. One she loved less. One she didn't define herself around. But she suppressed a groan and answered the phone like she always did, still half-asleep.
And then there was a split second of silence before a flicker of noise on the other end, something like a sob. Suddenly Caitlyn jolted awake, sitting up sharply as a chill crept its way down her spine. And before she even heard the voice, the voice that had scared her so many months before and the voice that scared her that night – she already knew.
"Oh God…Caitlyn, I'm sorry, Caitlyn, please…"
She didn't even register the words but the desperation in his voice scared her, sent her lungs into a panic and her mind into overdrive.
And for some reason, as her heart began to race, all she could think about was how it was the first time he'd ever called her by her name.
The rest of the night was a blur.
Caitlyn refused to believe it despite everything in her head screaming that something was terribly, terribly wrong. She clutched the phone like it was her last hope and whispered nonsense words into it, begging him to tell her that it was just a joke, nothing at all.
"No, no, no," she whispered, pleading for him to just lie to her, "What happened Shane, what happened?"
His voice cracked, and he choked on his next word.
And then Caitlyn was out of bed, her phone discarded on the floor as she grabbed her jacket and ran out of the room.
She has nightmares about it, still. They start the same, and she's in a clearing on the corner of an empty street. There are flashing lights all around her and she thinks of the night Mitchie ran away, with the flashlight beams dancing through her vision. But this, this is different and she doesn't know why.
She can't remember leaving the house but she must have, because now she's standing barefoot and there's an ambulance and she can't remember why she's here or why her pulse is beating throughout her body too loudly and why she feels like the world is moving a little bit too fast all around her.
And it's cold, bone-chilling, and she is numb and shivering but her jacket is gone and she can't remember what she's done with it. She can't remember the last time it's been this cold in California, and she doesn't know why it is so late at night or why she is standing in the middle of the road or why some part of her feels like crying, sobbing, wailing so that everyone might be able to hear her screams. She crumples to the ground and lies on the side of the road, shaking and hoping that somebody might find her, please, anybody.
And then she is being pulled up from the ground and she feels like everything is so, so desperately wrong but she doesn't know what she can do and she seems to have lost her voice, and all she wants to do is curl up into a ball and sleep forever and ever. She opens her mouth but nothing comes out, and she wants to scream, help me, do something, what's happening, but her breath comes out in little spurts and she watches the steam fade away into the harsh wind.
She's so tired, exhausted, and she can't feel her feet or her hands so she doesn't put up a fight when somebody takes her gently by the arm and ushers her toward an ambulance door, whispering reassuring words she can't understand.
The back door of the ambulance opens and she is enveloped in warmth, and she is gripping someone's hand but she doesn't know who. She clutches at the hand and looks around her and why is everyone panicking, what's happening? She blinks and then she sees her best friend, and she is surrounded by men and people are moving all around her and everything is vivid and red and it hurts her eyes, it hurts and why is Mitchie just lying there?
And suddenly she can't hear anything, not a thing and she still doesn't know why she is here and why she's having such an awful dream but all she can see is her favorite bracelet hanging loosely off of Mitchie's pale, thin wrist, and suddenly she is screamingscreamingscreaming at the top of her lungs but she can't hear her own voice and no one is even trying to stop her.
iii. in this heartbreak world of just imagine, of its tired talk of better days.
Caitlyn didn't even go to the funeral.
She stayed in her room for two full weeks, having nightmares every night. The curtains remained shut and it was hard to even tell what time of the day it was. She slept and slept because it was just easier, even with the nightmares. And she fell asleep waiting for that one moment when she woke up and thought for a second that maybe her horrible nightmare was just that – a nightmare. The realizing was always the worst. Sometimes it spread over her in little pieces, vivid images and sounds she couldn't forget. Other times it hit her all at once, so that she gasped for air and thought maybe this was what it was like to literally feel a heart shatter.
Her mom brought her food on a tray and mostly it sat untouched in the corner, ready to be cleared away when it was time for the next meal. Once, she spilled the tomato soup from her lunch all over the carpet, the bowl breaking into pieces. The room spun around her and Caitlyn clutched at the bed sheets because all she could think about were the broken shards and redredred everywhere and Mitchie lying on the side of the road in her favorite skirt and Caitlyn's bracelet. She threw up all over the floor and her mom cleaned it up – and Caitlyn didn't leave her room for another full week.
Sometimes, when Caitlyn was alone in her room, she turned on some music (but no Chopin – never Chopin, anymore) and tried to pretend like nothing had happened at all. She imagined that nobody pitied her and that she didn't feel like breaking down, that Mitchie was out having fun without her as usual. She wanted to let somebody comfort her and let her pretend that everything was okay. But then she'd be even worse than those girls at the parties Mitchie used to go to – because she'd see life through a pretty little stained glass window and all of it would just be her breakable façade.
And Caitlyn wanted to be strong but it was so hard when every newspaper offered its condolences and she couldn't even sit on the porch swing because that's where Mitchie used to tell Caitlyn all her secrets (and maybe her life had been a breakable façade anyway).
For a while, Caitlyn was determined to never go back to school.
But soon enough she was sick of pretending and hoping, and somehow she thought that by going to school things might seem normal again.
She arrived early the first day, and she was grateful for the quiet hallways as she walked to her locker. She wasn't used to an empty school – she and Mitchie used to agree that there was something about a school with no people that was creepy. Her footsteps sounded magnified and all of a sudden it felt like the walls were closing in on her. Her stomach churned and she grabbed onto the wall for support, her hands slippery on the bricks.
She closed her eyes and she actually thought she saw stars, bright against a dark, rippling background. She ducked into the nearest empty classroom and eased herself into a chair, waiting for her dizziness to pass and the bell to ring.
When she opened the door and walked out of the room, people were everywhere. Teachers walked briskly, their shoes clickclickclacking against the tiled floors and Caitlyn slid her way into the crowd, letting herself be carried along by its current. The sheer contact of it all made her breath hitch, scared of the closeness of people that she'd never gotten comfortable with.
As she walked along, she realized that people were staring. Sunken-eyed boys and girls turned to watch her and inched slightly away, scared their fingers might brush hers and carry a little piece of her tragedy. The whispers hovered too, a buzz following carefully behind her.
Before the accident, Caitlyn was sure that nobody really knew her name – or at least, they pretended not to. Today, eyes locked on her and flung themselves away when she looked up. She wondered if she had red-rimmed eyes like they did, or raw, bitten lips. That was her best friend, they whispered, can you imagine?
She walked into the bathroom after first period to find another girl crying. The girl looked up in surprise and jumped, tears pouring down faster. Caitlyn almost asked if she was okay, until the girl's eyes widened and she whispered, "I'm so sorry."
Caitlyn blinked and stepped away, stunned. She backed out of the bathroom and tried to forget the sobs of the other girl, echoing off the tiled walls. Did I love you, Caitlyn thought, directing her words at Mitchie, did I ever love you as much as she did?
She walked off to her next class, gripping the straps of her backpack until her fingers turned white from the pressure. She wondered what Mitchie would say if she saw her now.
Come on Cait, live a little, why don't you?
Caitlyn bit down hard on her tongue and closed her eyes. She heard Mitchie's voice everywhere these days – but she held on to it, because part of her was so scared she might leave her entirely. She wanted to respond, "I'm trying, Mitch," but she knew that would be a lie, and she'd had enough of those.
After Caitlyn went back to school, Caitlyn's mom baked a casserole for Mitchie's family, because she didn't know what else to do. Caitlyn nodded numbly when her mom asked her to drop it off, and she found herself walking the block down the familiar route to Mitchie's house. The sun was going down and Caitlyn didn't look up once from her feet until she was in front of the house. Her heart stopped for a moment and her palms sweat, and suddenly she felt eight years old again and she could hear Mitchie's laugh as she ran out of the door, calling her name.
She left the casserole on the porch and sprinted all the way back home.
Caitlyn was late to school again the next morning. She missed the bus and for a while, as she ran around the house in a daze, searching for her jeans in the wash, everything sort of felt normal. But then she ran into the garage and as she hopped onto her mom's old bike, she thought of getting lost in the woods with Mitchie, scraping knees and racing down the streets – and she didn't know how things could ever be normal again.
She thought about this the whole way to school, and she was shaking by the time she ran into the building. She neared the stairs and dashed up them, taking them two by two. She turned the last corner and started to breathe a sigh of relief when she crashed head-first into something.
"Shit!" someone yelped, letting out a groan. Caitlyn blushed furiously and clutched at her head, looking up through a veil of her hair.
"God, don't you watch where you're going? What the hell were you doing!? You could've—"
She blinked and then she was staring right into Shane Gray's coldcoldcold eyes. They made her think of pain, and God she was sorry, sorry for running into him, sorry that he lost his best friend too, sorry that maybe he loved Mitchie more than she ever did. She took a step back and all of a sudden she was furious, furious that this boy turned out to be like all of the rest of them and he couldn't help Mitchie when she needed it most, why didn't he save her, why didn't he do something, this is all his fault, all of it.
She jumped at the sound of her own name, rough and hasty from his lips. Her heart started to race again, but this time it was out of fear and anger and hatred. She was suddenly scared of this boy, the boy she'd never really wanted to trust, the boy who treated Mitchie like a princess, the boy who made her feel a little bit worthless and the only one she thought might be able to look past her bitter smile.
"You were with her," she murmured before she could stop herself, and after she'd said it she wished she hadn't.
His eyes met hers and flickered for a moment, and she thought she caught a glimpse of something like regret. A little bit of fury inside her dimmed at this, and then she just felt like crying until there was nothing left. He looked at her and for some reason she was sure that he was apologizing, begging for forgiveness. She tried to open her mouth but she was scared that only angry words would come out of it, and then he was standing and something in his expression had changed and he didn't look sorry anymore.
"I know you never trusted me, Caitlyn," he whispered, and his voice was so flat that somehow it was all worse than him screaming at her.
"I know you never trusted me," he repeated, his voice cracking as he looked up at her, eyes ablaze, "but goddamn it, Caitlyn, I loved her too."
Caitlyn's heart stopped and he stared at her, one hard glance. He shook slightly but he held his gaze steady and she was certain he must be able to see right through her, through all her angry words and insecurities.
"So don't you dare – don't you dare say that I didn't love her."
And then he turned and left Caitlyn standing alone in the hallway, crumbling into little pieces.
She didn't know how long she stood there, waiting for something that would never come. She waited for Shane to run back and apologize, to realize that Caitlyn would never accuse him of not loving Mitchie when she was scared of that fact herself. She waited for someone to walk down the hallway and find her, ask if she was okay so that Caitlyn could lie all over again. She waited for Mitchie, to come back and tell her all of this was an awful mistake.
Instead, somewhere in the process of her waiting, the bell rang. People poured out from classrooms in all directions, and Caitlyn felt like she was watching this from above as the tiny dot that was herself was swallowed up in the crowd. She imagined not being able to tell herself apart from everyone else in the hallway, imagined how great that would be.
Someone bumped into her from the side and she realized with a start that she was the only one not moving, the only one with nowhere to go. And then she was running, pushing her way down the stairs and back to the main entrance and out the door and towards her bike and movingmovingmoving.
She almost fell and someone gasped behind her but she kept running, her hair streaming out behind her and her flip-flops discarded along the way. Her backpack fell next, sliding off her shoulders and followed by her jacket. She left a trail behind her, a scattered path of fallen soldiers as she pedaled furiously down the sidewalks and swerved dangerously across the street. So someone can find me, she thought mindlessly, if anyone ever needs me again.
A car screeched to a halt, just missing her, and the driver rolled down the window to yell. His car horn went off as she pedaled faster, his screamed warnings winding along behind her. She almost laughed at the irony of it all, because wouldn't it be hilarious if both she and Mitchie were killed in car accidents, and wouldn't that driver be sorry if he knew who she was?
But he didn't, and she was glad.
The tears didn't fall, even when she wanted of them to, just to prove to herself that she missed Mitchie, that she needed her. And God, she really, really loved Mitchie, but how could she let this happen? And Mitchie, always, always leaving Caitlyn alone to fix herself. She hated her with every piece of her right then, hated her for leaving with Caitlyn's lie, for forgetting about Caitlyn and for always trying to get what Caitlyn could never admit that she wanted. What Caitlyn always believed she never deserved.
She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed for tears, because she was sad, wasn't she? She threw her bike on her lawn and ran to the park, and still the tears didn't come. She fell asleep at the top of the playground slide, waiting to fall.
When she woke up, the heat spread over her like a wave. The sun was falling over the horizon and the whole park basked in a warm orange glow. Caitlyn sat there for a few more minutes before she threw her hands up, letting gravity carry her down the red plastic slide. She landed in a heap at the bottom and she wished she could just stay there for the rest of her life.
She was lying there in a crumpled mess when she heard her name.
It wasn't a question, and she didn't want to answer. She didn't look up, even though her throat felt like it was on fire.
"What the hell are you doing?"
Caitlyn flinched, and then hated herself for it. Weakweakweak. She wanted to know the same thing. What was she doing? God, what happened? This was not supposed to be happening. She was supposed to be at Mitchie's house and they were supposed to be making chocolate chip cookies and Shane was supposed to be ignoring Caitlyn as usual and this was never, ever part of the plan.
"Get up, Caitlyn."
She wouldn't. The sun had fallen now and it was colder, but the last thing she wanted to do was get up.
His voice sounded like an echo, distant and drifting, and Caitlyn imagined the world falling apart around her, leaving her to stay on this tiny patch of playground for eternity. She was still picturing what this would be like when she felt a pair of cold hands wrap around her, lifting her into a sitting position. She still didn't want to look up but now she had no choice, and her eyes traveled carefully up along his jaw.
She traced the path along his cheekbones now, darting past raw lips and towards black, secretive eyes. He looked at her harshly and Caitlyn flinched again without meaning to. She didn't want to be scared of this boy who knew her name even before the accident, the one who made pancakes for breakfast, knew she listened to classical music and asked her if she trusted him. For a moment she was sure he would yell at her, but he didn't.
"You know," he said quietly, his voice low and rough, "Mitchie brought me here once."
Caitlyn blinked, unsure of what to say.
"I was coming back to drop her off after a party – the ones you didn't like to come to, and she saw the park and yelled at me to pull over. Almost crashed the car," he paused and laughed, but it was forced and empty. "She jumped out and I just followed."
Caitlyn felt her breathing slow down as she listened to him, distracted by his voice. She jumped when his hand wrapped around her wrists and he yanked her up, dragging her along. "She's brought you here too, right?" he asked, and then they were standing on the hill behind the park, the one that reminded Caitlyn of flashlights and running away. He looked over at her but didn't seem to be expecting an answer.
"It was so warm out, and we just sat here for hours, not saying anything at all. I think she fell asleep – but I stayed awake, not wanting to go back home. And, you know what? God, I used to get so angry with her. Sometimes she made me want to scream for being so…naïve. Didn't she see, didn't she get it? But I think," he said, his voice quieting again, "Sometimes I think I just wished I could be that happy, that unaware, like her."
He paused, sitting down slowly and pulling Caitlyn with him. "I did love her," he tried, "I did." But his voice was unsteady, unsure, and Caitlyn realized they were more the same than she thought. Her hands wound themselves into patches of grass as she breathed in.
"You did," she murmured, "I know you did."
There was too much that she wanted to tell him, and nothing at all, and she realized everything she had previously thought she wanted to say to him was irrelevant. It didn't matter, not anymore.
"I did too," she finally managed, closing her eyes. Her hands shook in the grass and for the first time since the accident, she realized that she never got to define herself without Mitchie. You can't be a hero for someone who doesn't exist anymore. She squeezed her eyes shut tighter and words spilled out without thought.
"I did too," she echoed herself, her voice growing in volume, "I did too. I did too. I did too." Tears fell slowly from beneath her eyelids but she didn't notice. All the certainty was gone from her voice and it shook with her hands. "Didn't I, Shane?"
It seemed like an eternity of silence that hung between them, and Caitlyn didn't breathe. Shane's face was blank, unreadable, and for a second she was sure that she picked the wrong person to pour her heart out to. Then slowly, he inched forward and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close.
"You did," he whispered, and then she felt like everything might be okay because she did love Mitchie, she always had. He held her steady, gripping her waist as Caitlyn buried her face in his shoulder and the tears were finally, finally coming all at once and she couldn't stop them if she tried. Somewhere in the back of her mind she realized this was what it felt like to lean on someone, to let someone in, and she wondered why it made her feel less weak, not more. She shook against him and she knew she was getting tears all over his sweatshirt but she didn't care.
"I hated her like I hated you," she breathed into his sweatshirt, "and still I loved her most of all."
And when she said it, she knew that it must be true. She wasn't sure if he had heard but he pulled her closer anyway, rocking back and forth slightly and murmuring "you did," and "I know", partly for her to hear, and partly for himself.
"I'm sorry," he hummed into her hair, his voice cracking, "Caitlyn, I'm so sorry."
Right then, she believed him – she trusted him. Out of all the people who had whispered those words to her in offering, she chose to believe him.
He pulled away slowly, and Caitlyn's breath caught in her throat as she furiously wiped away her tears.
"I didn't realize," he said carefully, "how much I needed her there, needing me."
And his hand wrapped itself around hers, holding her tight, grounding her.
"I think we gave her a lot less credit than she deserved," he laughed softly, "I think maybe she saw all of it, just chose what she wanted to hear, to see. She used to tell me about you, you know. And God, I never saw her smile as much as when she talked about you. I think – I think she knew you were meant for better things than following her around."
And then Caitlyn's vision was blurring and she was crying all over again because this, this was what she'd wanted to hear all her life. And she'd never known anything than Mitchie needing her and she'd always thought that was the best thing that she could ever ask for – but this, her needing someone else, was somehow better. His fingers tightened around hers as she stared up at the stars.
"She told me you were different," she suddenly remembered, "She told me I should trust you. That I'd see. I didn't believe her."
He chuckled softly, sounding almost melodic and musical. "I know."
Caitlyn slid down on the grass, letting the darkness swallow her. It eased itself all around her, filling her up until she wasn't sure if her eyes were even open any more. Caitlyn realized that in some ways, maybe they'd saved themselves by saving each other.
"Maybe I can trust you," she murmured, "Maybe I do now."
For the first time in a while, her lips turned up into the smallest of smiles, because something told her that everything just might be okay. Her hand loosened in Shane's as he slid down next to her and the two of them lay there, kissing the sky.