Callie sat on the sofa cradling a glass of water, having taking her first two aspirin of the day. It was early on Friday morning and she was the first up. It had actually been a good nights sleep eventually. She could not recall any of the dreams she must have had. However, the hour leading up to falling asleep was only too fresh in her mind.
She could remember the first sound of Stef's voice when she had returned home from her late shift. The feeling of being emotionally slammed against a wall and slapped across the face. She remembered going rigid and feeling cold, then shaking. It was then that Lena had held her by the shoulders. She had forced her to look at her, forced her to take her eyes from direction of Stef's voice, although in truth Callie might as well as have had her eyes shut as she had not been looking at anything at the time.
Lena had shaken her out of her desolation and then took her weight as she collapsed in her arms – part due to the physical pain she was still feeling at the time and part due to the overwhelming sorrow she had felt. Nature had played a cruel game with her; taunting her with the sound she had longed to hear again for six years, knowing it could never follow through.
Lena had then called in Stef for help. Callie remembered Stef carrying her into the lounge and laying he on the sofa, then sitting at her feet to look down at her. Callie had tried to squeeze herself ever more tightly into the corner, never taking her eyes off the older woman until she felt a strange calmness envelope her. She then cried. She had faced something she had shut away for so long – the loss of her mother. Dancing ghosts and a promise to keep had kept her sane. She had been in survival mode. Everything she did was part of the mechanism. But a young girl without the support of family and friends could only deal with so much.
Stef had asked her what was wrong after having allowed her to cry unhindered for several minutes. Callie told her the truth straight away. She deserved an explanation for her behaviour. She wanted to tell her the truth. She could not think of any suitable lie at such short notice. In fact Callie seldom lied to any foster parents. Telling the truth as confession had been her way of saying she did not care; do your worse; think what you like about me; she could defy and damn the world.
The revelation had upset Stef. She pulled Callie into a hug, which had made the illusion infinitely worse but was quite beautiful. She then found herself being lifted up and placed into Brandon's arms – she could not remember when he had entered the room. He took her upstairs and gently placed her on top of her bed covers, whereupon she curled up into a foetus position and fell asleep. Had she sensed Brandon looking down at her? If so, for how long was he there?
He was now standing across the room from her. How long had he been there for goodness sake? She looked up at him, wordless, hoping perhaps that he was a figment of her imagination, however scary that would have been. She did not blink for fear he was a figment of her imagination, however preferable, safer and less confusing that would have been. She tested each scenario. "Thank you," she offered. "For giving Jude your models," she clarified quickly to avoid him thinking about the other thing.
Brandon smiled. "You already thanked me, remember?" The kiss.
Callie purposely chose not to hear the question. It was just a thank you peck on the cheek. "Jude likes you. He thinks you're cool."
"What does his sister think?"
Callie wanted to tell him to stop it; it was becoming tiresome; it was becoming addictive. But she had kissed him. It was not allowed! It would only end badly. But what if Brandon was her chance at love – her one bright star? Her once-in-a-lifetime comet? Could she watch its tale light blaze into nothingness and not feel regret for not relishing it, for not jumping on for the ride? The night before, she had dreamt that she and Brandon had found each other in the night and then passed each other by.
She was damn sure she had never been in love. Was this what it felt like? The walls inside her head would shake to their foundations the moment he broke through. When he was in the same room, everyone else was reduced to furniture – except Jude, of course, who would trump Brandon in an instant.
She was not stupid enough to think he was her one and only chance of true love. She was not looking for her husband and life partner. After all, very few people married and lived the next forty years with those they met when 16 years sold. But what if Brandon was supposed to be her first true love - the one a mother tells her daughter and granddaughter about. She did not want that to be Liam, even though she had thought he was the candidate in the beginning of their relationship. No, Liam would just go down as her First, which made her intensely angry.
The boys in between, including Tom, had just been means to an end: to make her feel wanted; a warm body on a cold night; someone for Jude to talk to; sometimes for no other reason than because he and she were willing at the time. Every encounter, except Liam in the beginning, had been empty, soulless. The only consolation she clung to was that no one had ever forced her to do anything – beyond ensuring she locked her door at night and had a second exit route. In all instances she had been in full control of her lack of self-control.
She stood up and walked into the kitchen. Brandon followed her. She would love to meet Brandon half way, but decided it was easier to walk in the opposite direction. Safer and less confusing. So she ignored his question. "I spoke with Lena last night. I suggested she and Stef bend your grounding slightly and let Talya visit."
A pained expression appeared on Brandon's face. "Why did you do that?"
"I wanted to help you both. Talya's very worried about you being led astray by me."
Brandon massaged his eyes and turned away from her for a few seconds. "You should have asked me," he said turning back round.
"I was doing you a favour in return for the models you gave to Jude... and the guitar..."
"I wasn't trying to score points then for payback later! You don't owe me anything."
"Well that's OK then cos I don't have anything to give." -I'd give you my heart, but you'd take my soul- Callie felt the conversation was going well. It was better to erect a barrier; shore up the foundations of her wall. She felt physically safe in Brandon's company – and grateful. She knew he had her back. He was the first person for a long while she had been able to trust – before Stef and Lena had proven themselves. But she had thought the same about Liam.
She felt panic rising inside. "I must have a shower before the others start getting up."
She edged pass Brandon. He placed a hand on her arm and gently pulled her round. "Callie, I...I think I am falling in love with you."
She slapped his face without thinking. She responded to her own action by putting her hand over her mouth in horror: at the slap; at his words – long dreaded, long yearned for. A heart-piercing moment. This world was a blessing and a beast. Everyday. She reached out to gently touch where she had hit, but pulled back quickly. "Don't say that."
"I've tried not to have these feelings..."
"Then try harder!" Callie yelled at him. She backed away slightly. "Try harder...please," she pleaded.
"I know the consequences."
Callie was angered by this. "You don't know! You may have studied them in a foster manual, but you have no idea! You do know it's not allowed and what it will mean for Jude's well-being."
"What about your well-being?"
"I don't matter! I'm not important." -I'm disposable-
"Don't say that, don't think that"
"Don't ever tell me what to say or think!" She wanted him to stop looking at her. She wanted him to stop doing her favours. She wanted him to take back his words. Goodness help her, she wanted his touch. She edged pass him again without uttering any soothing words of apology. It was necessary for the conversation to end on a low note; for him to get the message. -please pull me back again-. This time, however, he let her go unhindered. The distance from the kitchen to the stairs was strewn with hot coals. The temptation to look round was agony. The knowledge that he was watching her retreat was torture.
It had been a long day. It had been a long week! Callie was sat on the edge of Jude's bed indulging in their nightly conversation before she kissed him goodnight. She was the last person he saw at the end of each day and, often as not, the first person he saw when the new day started; continuity in a life that seldom offered it.
"You were quiet today," Jude offered up into the dimness of the room – the only light being that from the hallway outside.
"I'm always quiet. It's my thing."
"Not normally. You haven't instructed me or asked me any questions today."
Callie's curiosity had been piqued. "Such as?"
"You always tell me to be good, eat my lunch, learn something. Always ask me if I enjoyed school, made any new friends. If I feel happy, safe. Sometimes in the exact same order."
"Wow, I'm quite a chatterbox."
"Not today. What's wrong?"
Sometimes Callie hated Jude asking her questions. She had vowed never to lie to him; to never patronise or hide the truth. Questions about religion had actually been fascinating; the 'sex talk' had been hilariously embarrassing – she giggled in private whenever she thought about it. But, some questions broached subjects she would rather not regurgitate; she would rather he not worry about.
"I had a long cry with Stef last night."
"The drugs? I thought Jesus had confessed."
"No, that's been resolved...it was something else." Jude sat up. "Can you remember mom's voice?" She asked.
He shook his head. "I can't even remember her face that well. Did she sound like Stef?" Callie looked at her brother in surprise. He smiled. "My maths may not be good, but I can add two and two."
"Smart arse." She ruffled his hair.
Sometimes Callie hated Jude asking her questions. She felt lucky, though, as he frequently made the answering easy for her. She gestured for him to lie back down and she kissed him on his forehead before standing up. She got as far as the door, but turned back round to him. "You're still happy here, right?" She asked feigning an offhand tone which she doubted fooled him. "You'd stay here, if you could."
"Forever, if you are here with me. Until tomorrow, if not."
"Callie," Jude called after. She looked back round. "You promised, remember?"
Callie nodded her head and shut the door. She wondered – weighed up the concept, as to whether an older promise took precedence over a newer one; whether a more important one negated a lesser. At no time did she consider breaking either. Instead, she wondered whether events could be manipulated to make a promise...bendable.
On the upstairs landing she nearly collided with Talya. Stef had given permission for Brandon to invite her over and he had done just that. It was a relief to see her and a bit of her died at the same time.
"Thank you for trying to help me," Talya said as she passed the other girl. Callie noticed all was not well with her friend-enemy-competition. She placed a hand on her arm and showed genuine concern at what was bothering her, and felt a dread rise from the pit of her stomach. "Brandon and I just broke up."
Callie put a hand to her mouth. She looked round at the closed door to Jude's bedroom. Her skin went cold with panic.
"It's OK," Talya offered, misinterpreting Callie's reaction. "I don't blame you. I know you tried to keep us together by suggesting I visit."
Callie felt ashamed her mind had so quickly moved away from Talya's hurt to her own fear. But her fear was still all to real nonetheless.
"I think he likes you," Talya unwittingly made things worse.
"He can't. It's not allowed," Callie intoned automatically before she realised she had said it out loud. "I'm so sorry," she finally alluded to the actual subject of the conversation.
Lena called Callie's name from downstairs. There was a boy at the door. Said his name was Tom and could they talk? She afforded one glance at Talya and shouted down that she was coming. Callie felt crowded with things to do. She wanted to talk with Talya. She needed to weigh up repercussions. She wanted to berate and comfort Brandon. And now Tom had finally turned up – where had he been!?. Why couldn't he have come yesterday, before the chess-pieces had been moved this morning and this evening. She backed away from Talya apologetically and nearly collided with Brandon on the stairs.
"Who's Tom?" He asked.
"My boyfriend," she answered simply – deliberately.
Lena met her at the base of the stairs. "It's late for a visitor, Callie."
"I know. I'm sorry, Lena. We'll be quiet and brief. We haven't seen each other for some time."
"OK, just this once and because it's not a school night. He's on the veranda outside."
Callie smiled a thank you and eagerly pulled open the front door. Tom was standing at the far end of the veranda, his back to her. He turned round and Callie leapt into his arms. She hoped she appeared overjoyed to see him rather than relieved he was there - to serve a purpose, to make a point. She was actually happy to see him. Tom was a nice person.
"Where have you been, for goodness sake?" Callie asked with mock sternness. -where have you been!- "I've sent you countless texts and emails."
Tom extricated himself from Callie's grip and lowered her to the ground. He pushed her to arms length, his hands on her shoulders. Callie couldn't help but notice his lack of enthusiasm. She backed away. Her mind was being assaulted by worse-case scenarios. She needed Tom to keep Brandon at bay. Brandon needed to be kept at bay to ensure Jude was not cast out of Paradise. He wouldn't stay behind without her and she wouldn't suggest otherwise – she was bound by the promise she had given him. Her alternative option terrified her.
She knew what was coming. "Why?" She pre-empted his words. She knew she was making it easier for him. She judged he deserved that. He had been kind to Jude and she had used him.
"My mother is unhappy about me dating a girl from juvie."
"Your mother." Callie's despair was upturned to anger. The emotion was welcome. She could handle anger like a professional. She weighed up her response; her desire to be fair to Tom countered by the fact he used his mother's opinion to justify his breaking up with her. "She was OK with you sleeping with a little foster girl, but her son with a criminal was one adventure too far."
"I'm sorry, Callie."
"He hit my brother!" She cried out. "He...he hit Jude," she pleaded for his understanding. "If he'd just hit me again, I would have bounced back like I always do. But, he hit..." This was the first time she had confronted the event out loud. It was not cathartic. "So I took a baseball bat to his precious car! No one believed me, of course when I told them why." She looked away. "No one ever believes me."
Tom reached out for her and laid a hand gently on her arm. "Oh, Callie, but what did you achieve?" She looked up at him momentarily puzzled. "You ended up being locked up and Jude was left with the very person you tried to protect him from."
At that point Lena appeared on the veranda, her eyes dangerous. "That's it," she declared. "This conversation is over. Go home, Tom."
She was too late, however; the damage had already been done. Callie stood destroyed by what she had been torturing herself with for weeks; thoughts given voice by a third party oblivious of the effect they would have. She had a hand over her mouth. She was in shock, her eyes focused on no-one; nothing but her own memories playing out a waking nightmare.
"Callie," Lena tried to attract her; tried to pull her from the abyss.
Callie snapped out of her trance. Her attention jolted to the older woman. Her eyes pleaded for understanding, for absolution, for her to make it all better. She fled the scene. Lena went to stop her, but was felled by a look of abject terror from the girl as she flinched away from her out-held hand. Stef only just avoided colliding with Callie as they passed each other in the doorway.
"Callie," Tom called after her.
Lena swung her attention round to him. "I told you to leave!" She yelled at him. Stef looked horrified as though such an emotion coming from her partner was alien to her. "And I don't want you to come here again, understand," she added, her normal calm returned, but still with the firmness of a vice principal.
"You can't stop me from seeing her again," the fool challenged.
Lena stood on the spot. She felt no need to approach him to emphasise her authority. "How old are you, Tom?"
"Eighteen," he replied puzzled.
"I seem to recall being told that Callie turned 16 only recently, which would mean she was under age when you were...dating."
"Is that a threat?"
"No. I don't threaten. My partner does that. She has a gun."
Stef stepped to her side on cue. She was still in her police uniform – unarmed, of course, but he obviously did not know that.
Tom stepped backwards down the steps. "I really didn't mean to upset Callie. Please tell her that."
"She knows," Lena offered kindly. "She was obviously pleased to see you, so I judge you must be a decent person. But, I advise you let her make the next move, OK?"
Tom nodded his head and walked. Lena sighed and turned round to face Stef.
"My partner has a gun?" Stef repeated, her eyes expressive. Lena shrugged. She then looked to the house and all thoughts were of Callie.
Callie was sat on the floor of the bathroom. She had exhausted herself of tears; silently screamed until her head ached. She was guilt-stricken and distraught at what she had done, what could have happened, and terrified at what she was about to do. As if on cue, she experienced a sharp spasm of pain in her stomach. She arched her back and her breath caught. She stood up, surveyed herself in the mirror and entered the landing. She looked in on Jude. He could sleep through anything, fortunately. Only nightmares roused him before it was time to wake and they had been few since they had arrived at this latest home.
She turned round and found Talya and Brandon facing her. Had they been on the landing all the time? She smiled weakly.
"Are you OK?" Talya asked and Brandon expressed. People were asking her that a lot these days. She really should have rehearsed some imaginative replies beyond "Yes, I'm fine thank you." She walked towards the stairs, but then turned round. "You will always look out for Jude, won't you?"
"Of course," Brandon replied.
"Thank you. I'd better go and apologise to your moms for this evening's...event."
Callie was relieved the two students remained upstairs and equally glad everyone else was in the kitchen. It made everything easier. She picked up a set of car keys, silently opened the front door and walked out of the house. She clicked the key lock, flinching slightly at the beeping noise it caused. She got in the appropriate car and drove away. Mariana and Jesus saw the car leave as they returned from seeing their birth mother.
"I didn't know she could even drive," Brandon added when Mariana revealed Callie's exit in Lena's car.
Lena looked to Stef, who returned her concern. "She'll come back eventually. She just needs some time alone."
"Are you serious?" Talya voiced. Everyone looked to her. "She's sick...hasn't anyone noticed? And, Brandon," she turned to her ex-boyfriend. "She practically said goodbye to you upstairs."
Stef's son was distraught. He looked to both of his moms for reassurance. It was Talya, again, who
stepped up. "We can take my car and search for her. Stef and Lena can follow in Stef's car."
Brandon pulled himself together and looked with supreme gratitude at his ex-girlfriend. "I think I know where she has gone."
"OK," Stef announced. "You two go now. Lena and I will follow shortly. Text us with any news you have." Brandon and Talya gathered their coats. "Now, where is it you think she may have gone?"
Brandon was relieved his instinct had been proven correct, right down to the exact location. Callie had parked the car half up to the kerb and at an angle to the road. The car door was still open as though parking, opening and exiting had been one continuous action. He pulled up behind Lena's car and both he and Talya climbed out. They did not have to search for long.
Callie was standing on the beach several feet from the pathway and facing the sea. She had her arms behind her back, hands linked and was looking up at the sky. She stumbled slightly causing her to lean forward and wrap her arms round her body frame before resuming her earlier stance.
"Aren't they beautiful?" She stated/asked without turning, having heard the car doors being slammed and guessing who it was standing behind her. She turned round to face her audience. She swung her arms wide and swayed to left and right. "Aren't they wondrous?" She meant the stars in a night sky void of any clouds to restrict the view. "Diamonds on a black blank canvas . So beautiful." She wiped tears from her face. "Why isn't the beach full of people to see this? Do the ghosts scare them? They needn't be frightened. They're only here to enjoy the spectacle with them."
"They're just stars, Callie," Brandon stated. "Have you never seen stars before?"
"Glimpsed through the gaps of buildings, yes. Filtered through neon. But not like this for so many years. And nothing so beautiful."
She turned round to face the sea again and started to walk away. Brandon was transfixed by the beautiful girl he had only met days before. He felt tears of his own for the sadness he felt.
"Go to her," Talya said. She stood alongside him. Brandon was surprised and relieved and ashamed. "Go to her," she repeated for his benefit.
"I am so sorry, Talya," he confessed.
"So am I, but what can we do?"
"We can still be friends though."
"Good grief, Brandon," Talya sighed exasperated, yet strangely not upset. "Go to her."
Callie had stopped again, appearing to be transfixed by something. He heard her giggle, then laugh out loud, then look up at the night sky again.
"Callie," he called out. "Callie, come home."
"But I want to stay here," she replied not turning round. She watched her ghosts dancing. "I want to lay on the sand with a diamond canopy over me and with the sea as a lullaby. I want to be crowned queen of the beach. I want to...fall asleep."
"Callie, please. You need to go to the hospital...you're not well."
If Callie had cared to live, she would have died long ago. Died of heartbreak: after Liam; after every subsequent soulless coupling; after every beating and failed foster home. If Talya and Mariana had experienced half of what she had, they would lock themselves in a room and cry for a year. But she had not cared to live, so she had survived. Survived on a promise she had made six years ago - a promise which was so close to fruition. It had made her calculating, callous, cold. She was shaken from her thoughts by the realisation that Brandon had bridged the gap between them. He was frighteningly close to her.
"I love you," he confessed again, oblivious or perhaps uncaring of her desperation for the opposite.
"Sssh," she responded quietly, placing two fingers on his lips. "It's not allowed. Believe me, it always ends badly." She backed away from him and was about to turn round.
"I don't care," Brandon stubbornly declared.
"Oh, Brandon, you're so young," Callie said kindly, although she knew it patronised. She then changed her tone. "You've known me less than a week - you can't possibly love me yet. What you mean is, 'you like me... in a special way.'
He moved one step closer, she backed away one step.
"Besides, you really don't want me. I'm just a little foster girl. People like me don't get to enter the perfect snow-globe worlds like yours – we stare through the glass from the outside and shake them, causing chaos and confusion."
He moved one step closer, she backed away one step. She felt panic well up from the base of her stomach. He was jeopardising everything! Yet, she was so close to stepping forward.
"I'm too damaged to heal. I'm high maintenance."
He moved one step forward, she stood her ground. She closed her eyes, then opened them again and set herself on the course she needed to take.
"I'm used goods," she declared. "And I don't just mean second hand, I've...I've been very generous."
He stopped. She inwardly sighed – relief and dismay. She should have ripped the plaster much sooner; before his declaration
"Do I mean nothing to you?" He pleaded like a child lost.
"You mean nothing to me." -nothing in particular and everything in between. Oh, Brandon, if you take one step forward I will be yours, damn the consequences-
"Why are you doing this? Acting like this?" He asked, confused and hurt and rooted to the spot
"I'm tired, Brandon," Callie responded – almost cried out. "I'm..." she paused... for inspiration...for understanding...to be rescued.
"You're sad," Talya injected into the silence. "You're sad."
Callie wanted to hug her. This girl she had started out wanting to hate, yet had grown to respect and had desperately not wanted to betray. "I've been sad for so long," she conceded. She looked up at the stars. "But not tonight," she added with determination and a tone of wistfulness. "How could I be sad tonight with a sky so beautiful?" She caught sight of another car pull up alongside Talya's. "Ellen and Portia have arrived." Brandon and Talya turned round.
Stef and Lena got out of the car. Lena walked round from the passenger seat and stood alongside her partner. Callie screamed inside when she saw Stef break away and start to walk towards her across the sand. -why did it have to be her?- Callie turned from her audience and started to walk away.
"Where are you going, Callie?" Brandon called to her.
"I'm going down to the sea's edge. I might skinny dip." She turned round to face him. "Did you want to come too?" She asked impishly cruel. "Talya can come too. I'm pretty sure Stef won't mind. You come from a liberal house, after all – all bases covered."
"Are you in pain, Callie?" Stef asked suddenly. Callie resolutely kept her eyes opened – it was still light enough to see her face, but her voice still haunted her.
"Exquisite agony, thank you for asking."
"Then let me take you the hospital..."
"Please, Callie. This isn't the way out."
This was the first verbal recognition of what she was considering...attempting.
"Brandon loves me," Callie declared as though it was the end of the world and a justification.
"I know." Stef said simply.
Brandon looked to his mother in shock. Callie noticed and was truly confused by his surprise. Didn't he know that Stef saw everything? Knew everything.
She then watched as Stef turned her attention to Lena. Her partner opened the rear car door and Callie watched in horror and devastation as her brother climbed out.
"You brought Jude!" She cried. "Why did you have to do that? Why would you do such a thing?" Stef held out her hand. Callie ignored her – her eyes transfixed on Jude instead. "I wanted to lie down under the stars. I wanted to be free. I wanted to...fall asleep."
"We promised never to lie to him, remember?"
"He was asleep!" She looked at Jude, her king, then back to Stef. "I left him on his own for two weeks," she broke down. "I left him with the devil himself for two weeks!"
Jude then started to run towards her. Callie put her hand to her mouth to stop from crying out. She sank to her knees and he fell into her arms. She hugged him tightly, despite the pain it caused. She maintained the close embrace for several seconds before finally holding him at arms length to look him in the eyes.
"Are you OK?" She asked.
"Yes. Are you?"
"I...no... I'm not well." She could not lie to him.
"Are we going to the hospital?"
"Yes." She stood up.
"Did you notice the stars?" Jude asked, catching his sister unawares.
She looked up. "Yes...they're beautiful, aren't they?"
"They remind me of our nights on the beach with mom."
Callie looked down at him. "I didn't think you remembered."
"Of course I do. You used to play your guitar as me and mom danced. We'd stay all night and catch the first bus back the next morning."
Callie let her tears flow freely. The world at that moment consisted of just her and Jude.
"Let's go," Stef instructed.
Callie looked in the direction of the car. "I don't suppose you could bring the car a bit closer. I...I think I've reached my limit here." She suddenly found herself hoisted off the ground, in Brandon's arms. "Oh...you're lifting me up...I'm being lifted...that's OK."
As her white knight carried her up the beach Callie realised nothing had really been resolved – she and Jude were still just temporary. In fact, matters were more confusing – Brandon loved her. Brandon loved her. It was bound to end badly, but she did not care. She would shake the snow globe with an unbridled enthusiasm – everyone loved snow, right? She nestled her head into Brandon's shoulder.
"I should warn you," Jude directed at his sister. "When you're better we're gonna have a big argument."
"We are?" Callie responded with a smile.
"Oh yes. I'm going to shout a lot and you're going to apologise a lot and make fresh promises."
"Will you accept my apologies?"
"Of course. You're my queen. I'm your lion-heart."