I met Catie in summer school. Eighteen and a few credits behind, I’d been allowed to walk with my class for graduation, but I wouldn’t get my diploma until I made up for failing English. Catie was earning extra credit to graduate early. She was seventeen but looked younger because she had a small body and all of her features were round: big doll’s eyes, petite button nose, and the perfect Cupid’s bow curve to her upper lip. She had hair the same pale brown as grass in July after a few weeks without rain.
Every day I sat at my desk, chewing on the end of my pen and tapping the toe of my boot on the linoleum, trying to concentrate on whatever book I should have been reading or essay I should have been writing, but I always ended up watching her. There were ten of us in the class. She wore a dress every day – weird, I thought, but a little charming.
One day we were meant to be writing a five paragraph essay on King Lear but the room was hot – no air conditioning and only two windows that opened – and I fell asleep. I’d been chewing gum and it fell out of my mouth, right into the middle of my half-written essay. When I woke up, I looked around the room and it didn’t seem as though anyone had noticed. So I started to pick at the gum with my fingernails, trying to pull it off of the notebook paper without tearing it. I looked up just in time to see Catie turn her head away from me, ducking to try to keep me from seeing her laugh. I finished the task and told myself not to be embarrassed because soon I’d be out of here forever, and anyway she was only a junior.
At the end of the day, I turned in my sticky paper and tried to escape without speaking to anyone, but Catie snuck up beside me before I got very far down the hall.
“Samantha,” she said.
“Sam.” I corrected her out of habit, before I thought about the fact that doing so invited conversation.
“Sam,” she said, “sorry. And I’m sorry about that.” She jerked her shoulder in the direction of the classroom.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I would have laughed too.”
She had her copy of King Lear on top of her notebook and she held them both against her chest, arms wrapped around them. Her pale yellow dress had little pink flowers all over it. She looked like an image out of a children’s book.
Silence fell between us, but we continued down the hall toward the door at the same pace. Catie bit her lip. “How do you like King Lear?” she said. I realized that she was biting her lip to keep from laughing again.
“I think you know the answer,” I said. She looked down at the books in her arms and finally allowed herself to smile. “I don’t like it either,” she said. “We read enough old dead white men, let alone the same ones over and over again. This is my fifth Shakespeare in three years.”
I agreed with her even though I knew she liked the play much more than I did. Just that day in class she’d passionately defended the youngest daughter. I had a feeling she’d read through the whole play already, even though only the first act had been assigned so far.
We reached the heavy metal doors that let out into the school parking lot. The air outside was just as warm, but fresh, and I could feel a breeze.
“Your name’s Catie, right?” I said, even though I knew the answer.
She said it was and I said I’d see her in class, and then I got into my car. I didn’t offer her a ride home, but I did think about it.
We had a thirty-minute break every day. I’d been taking mine outside and eating my bag lunch under an old oak tree. The day after Catie and I talked about King Lear, she followed me out and sat under the tree with me.
I thought she’d ask why I was taking class over the summer (a question I’d so far avoided answering even though apparently everyone asked everyone else their reasons in a special summer school version of getting-to-know-you small talk). But Catie didn’t say anything at all. She pulled a sandwich out of her own paper bag as though this was a ritual we’d already established. I tried to eat my lunch and just let her be, but the hanging silence felt too uncomfortable.
“What do you have for lunch?” I said, kicking myself halfway through the question for saying something so stupid.
“A turkey pesto sandwich with provolone and arugula.”
“Damn,” I said, “your mom must really love you.”
Catie quirked her left eyebrow. “Oh, no – I made it myself. I mean, my mom does love me. I just make my own lunches.”
I had to laugh a little bit. I couldn’t tell if her cheeks were pink because she was blushing or just from the heat of the day. “Sorry,” I said.
But Catie bit her lip and smiled. “I guess I deserve it,” she said. “I laughed at you yesterday.”
While she ate her fancy sandwich and I ate my PB&J, we talked about the other kids in class. Everyone else had stayed inside to eat their lunches in the air-conditioned teachers’ lounge.
“What about Matt?” Catie said. We were taking turns asking each other’s opinion.
“While we were watching a movie in history last year, I saw him making out with his textbook. I don’t know if he was dreaming or what.”
Catie, delighted, almost spit out a bite of sandwich. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know if I can describe it,” I said. I thought about it for a moment and then, inspired, I mimed what I had seen. It was a grotesque portrayal involving a lot of tongue and exaggerated lip movements that had Catie laughing so hard that she held her side.
“My turn,” I said once she’d calmed down. “Heather?”
Catie chewed and thought, tapping her cheek with one finger. “Too pretty for that guy she’s dating. What do you think of Meghan?”
“She cheated on me in math like twice before she realized what a mistake that was. What about Ryan?”
“He thinks he’s about forty-five percent funnier than he actually is.”
“Catie! I never would have guessed that you could be kind of mean.”
“Was that mean? I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be – you’re right.”
Break was almost over. We’d need to go back inside in a minute, but I found that I wanted to stay outside and keep talking to Catie. I told her I could give her a ride home after school, if she wanted.Catie seemed surprised, but she accepted. When I dropped her off, she had me leave her at the end of a long dirt driveway with trees on either side. Her house must have been pretty far in, because I couldn’t see it when she got out of my car. I wondered what it looked like, but I didn’t see it the next day when I drove her home either. I started to think maybe she was hiding it from me on purpose. She could be private about certain personal details, I’d learned. Then on Friday, she invited me over.
When I finally did see the house, I could guess why she’d been hesitant. It was a light gray color that seemed unintentional, like it used to be darker but had faded over time. The house sat on the edge of town in an area where everyone lived a lot further apart than they did in my neighborhood. There were woods behind the house and an overgrown garden in the front lawn. It looked isolated. If I’d just stumbled upon the place, I would have assumed that no one lived here at all, except for the cornflower blue car parked in the driveway, perfectly clean despite the dirt.I got out of my car but I didn’t slam the door like I normally would because the space around the house seemed calm and silent and I didn’t want to ruin it. Catie led me up to the door at the side of the house but paused before she opened it. She turned to look at me over her shoulder and held one finger to her lips to indicate that I should be quiet.Inside, the house was not what I’d expected. I felt like an asshole for assuming that the place would be a dump. Track marks on the living room carpet testified that the room had recently been vacuumed. Not a single dirty dish sat in the kitchen sink or on any of the counters.
I followed Catie across the main room to a closed door down a little hall. As soon as she opened it, I knew this must be her room. The walls were the faintest pink. A quilt was draped over the made bed – homemade, based on the fraying threads I could see peeking out from between the worn squares. I didn’t see much furniture: the bed, a desk in the corner, and a bookshelf packed with hardcovers. One shelf over the bed held a series of boxes and little figures, clearly hand-me-downs or heirlooms. None of them seemed to have much to do with Catie – a ceramic ballerina, a dark wooden box about the length of a dollar bill (for cigars?), a vintage photo of a young couple. Everything in the room looked old. It made me feel claustrophobic. I had the urge to buy Catie something brand new.
Catie slipped off her shoes and placed them by the door of her room, and then backed up so suddenly that I didn’t notice and she bumped into me.
“I’m sorry,” she said, at the same time that I tripped over my own apology for being in the way. I’d assumed we were going into her room, but she stepped back out into the hall and shut the door behind her. She hadn’t worn socks, so now that she’d removed her shoes she was barefoot.
She waved her hand to beckon me after her. We went to the kitchen, into a little mud room, and then outside to the back of the house. The backyard was more a patch of grass between the house and the woods than a yard. Catie headed straight for the woods, turned back once she got there to make sure that I was still following her, and then slipped in among the trees.
“Where are we going?” I said. “I thought you were going to show me your house?” Catie shrugged. “You’ve seen it,” she said. “This is better.”I had to admit that I liked these woods. Under the canopy, the air felt damp and cool, but patches of sun filtered through. And the trees swallowed all sound. Just a few yards in, I could easily believe that we were alone – no nearby houses, no noisy highway less than two miles to the west.
I stayed behind Catie as we walked. I was grateful for my boots and didn’t know how she could be so confident moving over the roots and twigs with her bare feet.
“Almost there,” she said.
Everything looked the same to me. We walked a little further. I tripped over a root that had lifted up from the earth and had to catch myself before I fell, but Catie hardly seemed to notice. When I straightened up, I saw what Catie must have been leading us to. It was a clearing, an almost perfectly round area of grass free of trees, probably about twenty feet across. A bright patch in the middle of a sea of shade. A few wildflowers had sprung up here and there, and bees and other insects floated through the heavy air.“I’ve been coming here since I was little,” Catie said. She went to the center of the clearing and laid down on the grass. She crossed her legs at the ankles and put her hands behind her head.
“Knew you’d like it.”
“How?” I said, before it occurred to me that this was a weird thing to say. “I mean, how did you know I’d like it? ”Now I knew that Catie was blushing.
“Well,” she said, “you’re always going outside, whenever you can. And—” she stopped.
“What is it?” Catie never let being embarrassed stop her from doing or saying anything.
“It’s just that you seem more at peace when you’re outside,” she said. “Like you can relax into yourself. Like the trees and the open air let you be who you really are.”
“Who do you think I am?” I said before I could stop myself, before I could play it off as a joke.
Catie shook her head and tucked her hair behind her ears – out of habit rather than necessity, I guessed, since she was lying down. “I’m still figuring that out.” I didn’t join her on the ground but instead wandered through the clearing looking at the flowers, examining the bark on the trees. I was looking for the sake of looking, exploring, but I also had a sense of trying to find something.
“Come lie down,” Catie said. The invitation made my stomach jump. “It’s a great place for naps.”
“I’m not really a nap person.”
Catie lifted her hands in a gesture that said “suit yourself,” and let it go. I wandered around the clearing for a few more minutes, staying close to the edge, examining the trees, looking at the different flowers.
Before long though, the afternoon sun made me drowsy. I was pretty sure Catie had fallen asleep. I took off my boots, stuffed my socks into them, and put them at the base of a tree. Then I went to lie down beside Catie. I started out a couple feet away from her, but that felt weird – intentionally distant. I tried moving closer, but then I was too close, too aware of her body next to mine. I settled about a foot away and draped my arm over my eyes, to block the light, but also to keep myself from looking at Catie. With my feet in the grass and my hair pillowed beneath my head, I fell asleep and didn’t wake up until the sun began to sink behind the tree tops.
We spent that weekend in the clearing. I met Catie at her house in the mornings and we walked there together. We talked and sometimes played with a faded deck of cards that Catie claimed was older than she was. After class on the weekdays, I drove Catie home and we either hung out in the clearing or her room until I had to get home for dinner. On nights when we had too much homework to hang out, we texted about the assignments. Then one day, she didn’t show up to school, and I hadn’t heard from her since the day before, so I decided to check on her.
“Catie?” I called into what appeared to be her empty house. The cornflower blue car – always in the driveway – was gone, the door to the house unlocked.The inside of the house was immaculate as always, and as always. No sign of Catie’s mother – and no sign of Catie.I crossed the living room and knocked on her bedroom door. No response. I turned the doorknob and opened the door just enough to peek inside. She wasn’t there. The door to Catie’s mother’s room, at the end of the hall, was closed. I’d only ever seen it closed. Catie had told me that her mom didn’t avoid me personally, she just had trouble being around people she didn’t know.
The bathroom door was closed too. The carpet kept my footsteps from making any noise as I walked down the hall. I knocked but again didn’t hear anything.I thought that maybe I should leave, but I was worried, and since I didn’t see the car, I knew Catie’s mother must have left. I pushed the door open just an inch or so, not enough to see inside, just to let my voice through. I said Catie’s name.
“Sam? Is that you?”
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to bother you. You weren’t at school.”
“You can come in,” Catie said.
I expected her to be doing her hair or plucking her eyebrows, but when I stepped into the room she was in the bathtub. An abundant layer of bubbles kept most of her body hidden, but I could see enough of an outline to determine the shape of her.
“I was worried about you,” I said. “Are you sick?”
“My mom,” Catie said. “I was taking care of her.”
“Where is she now?”
I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wished Catie would get out of the tub so we could go to the clearing, but at the same time, the air felt nice in here. It smelled like roses. I sat down on the toilet seat.
“With my aunt,” Catie said. “I call her sometimes when I need help.” What did that mean, I wondered? I wanted to ask what was wrong with her mom, but how could I? I couldn’t think of a polite way to do it.
Catie played with the bubbles in her bath, running her hands over them, herding them back and forth over the water. She didn’t appear bothered by her mother’s absence. But maybe it was an act?
I tugged at the fraying denim on the legs of my cutoff shorts. Catie asked what we did in class today and whether we had any homework. While we talked she pulled bubbles up over her arms and chest until it looked like she was wearing a dress made of them.
“Come in,” she said after I explained the homework assignment. I wasn’t sure I understood.
“Come on,” she said. “The water’s still warm. It’ll be a tight fit, but there’s room.” I’m not sure I breathed at all for several seconds. She lifted her right hand out of the water and held it out to me, palm up. Bubbles clung to her fingers. I stood up. I’d left my shoes by the door of the house, not wanting to track in the summer dust. I pulled my shirt off over my head and dropped it on the floor, but then I hesitated.
Catie took my hand and pulled me forward. My foot hit the side of the tub and I had to brace my free hand against the wall to keep from falling. But her insistence was enough. I slipped out of my shorts and briefly considered getting into the tub without removing my bra or underwear, but then I would have to drive home with them soaking wet. I avoided looking at Catie while I quickly tugged them off and dropped them onto the top of my little pile of clothes. Then I stepped into the bathtub and sank down to cover as much of myself as I could.In order for us both to fit, I held my knees up close to my chest and put my feet next to Catie’s so that together they made up a line across the middle of the tub – her foot, mine, hers, mine. The water was hot, and I could already feel sweat forming on the back of my neck.
Every other time I’d hung out with Catie, conversation had been easy. We talked about whatever popped into our heads, it seemed like. But usually when we talked, we were outside. In the clearing, surrounded by trees, or in the parking lot at school walking to my car, or driving with the windows rolled down to Catie’s house. Now, tucked together into this bathtub,with the warm air pressing down around us and the floral scent of the bubbles overwhelming me, I felt stifled.
“I have a project I’d like your help with,” Catie said.
“Like, for school?” Catie reached up to gather her hair into her hands, briefly exposing one pink nipple above the layer of bubbles, and draped it over her shoulder.
“No,” she said. “A personal project.”
I had no idea what this might mean. I didn’t know anyone who did projects for fun. Catie scooped up a palmful of bubbles and blew on them so that a couple of clumps separated and drifted through the warm air toward me. One of them landed on my collar bone.
“It’ll mean working in the clearing,” she said. I asked her what she wanted to do, but she wouldn’t tell me. She just said that we’d start working on it the next day after school, if I agreed. I told her okay, I would do it. Hanging out with Catie was already the best part of this boring, school-filled summer. A little extra excitement could hardly be a bad thing. Catie leaned forward suddenly and in the instant that I had to think about it, I thought she was going to kiss me. I didn’t have time to decide if I’d kiss her back, only just enough to feel my insides twist. But she didn’t kiss me. She brushed the bubbles off my collar bone with the tips of her fingers and settled back against the end of the tub.
“What is all this?” I said the next day when we entered the clearing to find a pile of linens and a few other objects I could see no obvious correlation between.Catie threw herself down onto the pile with her arms out to her sides.
“These are our materials,” she said. She still hadn’t told me what we were doing, and the pile of sheets and pillowcases and lengths of bungee cord was not helping me put the pieces together.
Catie was wearing a white dress that came to just above her knees while standing, but now it had ridden up several inches. I turned my eyes back to the “materials.”
Most of them were white, and in the summer sun the pile glowed.
“Now will you tell me what we’re doing?” I said.
Catie sat up, crisscrossing her legs. She looked like a bird sitting sweetly in its nest.
“Have you ever seen aerial dancing?” she said.
“The thing where they hang from the ceiling by long banners and twirl around?” Catie said, “We’re going to do that.”
Setting the how aside for the moment, I said, “Why?”
Catie lay back down into the pile of linens and closed her eyes. She stretched her arms over her head and let them fall gracefully back down again. “I’ve always wanted to fly,” she said.
“There’s no ceiling,” I said. Even if she meant to make some sort of apparatus here and then bring it home, none of the ceilings in her single level house were high enough to make it work.
Without opening her eyes, Catie pointed up. I saw what her plan must be. The linens were placed directly beneath the largest tree at the edge of the clearing. We had already climbed it together a couple of times. One thick limb hung over the soft grass below.
“Scared?” Catie said. “Don’t worry. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. I just need your help so I don’t fall and die.”
“Don’t joke,” I said. For the first time since I’d started talking to Catie, I felt older than her.
“That’s why you’re here,” Catie said. “It’ll be a while before we get to that part anyway. We’ve got to figure it out first.”
She sat up again and started digging through the pile she was still nestled into. As she pulled things out and started to organize them, she explained her thought process behind each item. The sheets were intended to be the banners, but she thought that the stretch of the bungee cords might help add some give. She had a few ideas about how to attach the sheets to the tree. There was duct tape, some sort of thick, rough rope, and a length of chain that had a metal ring about three inches in diameter attached to it.
“You’ve put a lot of thought into this,” I said.
“Not really,” she said, an obvious lie. We practiced tying ourselves and each other into the sheets. We tried different knots to link the sheets together. We tied bungee cords to tree trunks and pulled them out as far as we could, leaning all of our combined weight into them, to see how much they would hold. We didn’t make it up into the tree at all.
The sun began to sink behind the trees around six and even though it wouldn’t be dark for another couple of hours, without direct light it was hard to see in our little clearing.
We walked back together. When we got to the porch on the back of the house, Catie went up the couple of steps and I stayed on the grass of the backyard.
“Same time tomorrow?” Catie asked, as though I hadn’t driven her home from school and hung out with her every day for the past two weeks. I said sure. I leaned back, hanging off the porch railing, and I was just about to push away and head for my car in the driveway when Catie leaned down over the railing and kissed me on the cheek.
I felt stunned, but Catie only spun on her toes toward the door. Before she went inside, she turned and waved goodbye, bright and cheery. I chalked it up to excitement over her project.
On the third day we worked on the project, I almost saw Catie’s mother. I heard the shower turn off as we walked into the living room to drop Catie’s shoes off.
I thought for sure that I’d at least catch a glimpse of her but by the time we made it to Catie’s room, the door at the end of the hall was already shut. Catie gave no indication that she was aware of the near miss.“What’s wrong with your mom?” I finally asked that afternoon. I had given up on finding a nice way to ask, and today I felt close to Catie, in an uncomplicated way. We were united toward a common goal. I had a sense that this moment would be the best chance I’d get, like things wouldn’t stay this simple for long.
We were, once again, tying sheets together, trying to find the strongest knot. The sun was still high and bright, so we sat beneath the tree we’d be doing our aerial dancing from. We’d been leaving our things out overnight because it was easier than toting them back and forth from the house every afternoon, but they’d gotten wet during a shower, so we’d hung most of them off of tree branches around the edges of the clearing. It made it feel like we were at camp in a fantasy novel.
“She’s sick,” Catie said.
She didn’t seem upset, just kept tying her sheets, but she didn’t elaborate either. I felt bad for asking.“When do you think you’ll be ready to go up?” I said, changing the subject to the only one I knew to be safe.“Tomorrow,” she said.She’d said the same thing yesterday. I was beginning to wonder if she was putting it off on purpose.
“Here,” Catie said, handing me one end of the train of sheets she’d been tying together. “I looked up some ties. I’ll walk you through it.
”I took the sheet from her and moved up onto my knees to get a better angle. She crawled a couple of feet closer to the center of the clearing, away from the other sheets she’d pulled down but that didn’t pass muster, and laid down on her back. She explained how to wrap the sheet around her legs in such a way that would supposedly allow her to dangle from the tree without falling. Once I finished it, she pulled the sheets off of her and had me do it again.
Everything, once mastered, had to be practiced several times. I suppose I just trusted that she knew what she was doing. She seemed sure of herself, and in school she always knew so much, always had the right answer.We practiced a couple more ties and I concentrated on making sure my hands never brushed Catie’s bare legs, but soon the sun was sinking behind the trees again. Catie was frustrated, something I had only seen a handful of times, and only ever in this clearing. She worked until she had to squint.
“This is bullshit,” she said after we finally had to give up. We made our way back through the woods, picking our way over roots and fallen branches in the near-dark. I was pretty sure I’d never heard her swear before.
“Tomorrow night we should stay. We’ll camp out. It’s Friday. I’ve got a couple sleeping bags; we can bring some candles.” I didn’t see exactly how this would allow us to work longer, since it didn’t seem to me that candles would provide much light, but the idea of spending a night in the clearing with Catie seemed sort of magical, so I agreed to bring some pillows to school the next day.
I’d thought Catie meant we’d bring a few candles and huddle around them, but when she emerged from her bedroom, she had an entire pillowcase-full slung over her shoulder.
“Jesus,” I said, “what did you do, rob a church?”
“My mom worries about power outages,” she said.
She asked me to grab the two sleeping bags rolled up on her bed. They had bungee cords wrapped around them, so I could carry one in each hand with the two pillows I’d brought stuffed under my arms. Overladen as we were, the walk through the woods was giddy. In the clearing, while we could still see, we speared the candles into the ground like stakes, scattered every few feet from the tree line to the center, where we left some space clear for our sleeping bags. We rolled them out just a few inches apart from each other.
Once the candles and sleeping bags were in place, we went back to work on our project. At this point, we were pretty sure we had a few ties down, we knew the mechanism that we thought would work best for the set-up in the tree, and we had a good idea of how much weight the bungee cords could comfortably sustain. But I found it hard to focus, and I couldn’t muster the same excitement for the project that Catie seemed to have. I was waiting for the sun to go down.
Every other day, the afternoons had passed so quickly. Today, it dragged. For the first time, I found myself getting frustrated with the sheets and bungee cords and all the bits and pieces we’d gathered over the past week. I think Catie noticed, because she was quieter than usual, or maybe she just felt tense in her own way.
When the sun had only just begun to set, still much earlier than we would have given up working on any other day, Catie said, “We should light the candles.”
She dug through a small bag that had been in the pillowcase with the candles. As she rummaged around in it, I saw that she’d packed us each a couple of sandwiches and some potato chips. It occurred to me that I wouldn’t have any way to brush my teeth out here.She pulled out a matchbook and gave me a few matches. We started on opposite sides of the clearing to light the candles. There were so many – dozens of them – that it was true twilight by the time we met in the middle. I had been focused on each candle as I worked, so I hadn’t looked up to see the overall effect until now. None of the candles were new and so they all stood up out of the ground at different heights.
“Like fairy lanterns,” Catie said. For the first time I thought that it might be dangerous to have them all burning so close to the trees, but they were small and the earth was still damp from the summer showers. They were too beautiful to worry about anyway.
Catie sat down on her sleeping bag, so I sat down on mine beside her.
“Tell me a secret,” Catie said.
I told her that I wasn’t going to college in the fall, or probably the next fall either. It embarrassed me, to struggle so much with school. I never talked about it and made a show of not caring. I told Catie about that too, about how I’d stay up all night doing homework, reading ahead in textbooks, refusing to make plans with friends so that I could work harder. And I told her that it never worked, and eventually I gave up. I told her I’d thought it was a genuine miracle when the principal told me I could walk with my class at graduation.
“I’m scared,” I said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t even know what I want to do.” Catie didn’t respond to this. She nodded, acknowledging it, and I had the sense that she had accepted my secret, that this was a sort of transaction.
“My mom isn’t sick,” Catie said. “Not exactly.” She was watching the candles at the far edge of the clearing and playing with the grass between her fingers. “It’s more like she’s—” Catie said, and paused “–sad. Most days she won’t do much except clean, if that. She only goes outside to clean the car. She hasn’t had a job in a while. We can afford the house and everything because my dad’s a merchant marine, but he’s never home.”
I put my hand on Catie’s bare knee. In the summer, before the night cooled down, the air was smothering. I felt my palm damp with sweat. Catie lifted her hands and swept her hair behind her ears. Her eyes were wide and I could see candlelight in them. She seemed to lean closer to me, but it might have been a trick of the light.
“When I was little, my dad used to tell me stories about these woods,” she said. “Our neighbors hadn’t built their house yet, so there was no one out here but us.”
“Sounds scary,” I said.
“It was,” she said, “but in a good way.”
She told me some of the stories her dad used to tell her, about fairies that were meant to live in the trees and ghosts that haunted the area. Some were sweet and some were frightening, but all of them were tinged with magic, and felt a little bit real in the dark surrounded by trees and candles.
“Did you believe that stuff?” I asked when Catie stopped at the end of a story about a monster who became a tree during the day.
“I did for a while,” Catie said.
I had been pulling blades of grass out of the ground during the story, but now Catie reached over to me and put her hand on top of mine. I looked up at her.I waited. I felt like I had to wait. She lifted the palm of one hand to the side of my face and kissed me, just once, softly. When she pulled back she didn’t look sad or scared. She looked exactly the way she did when she had the right answer in class. I was my own little candle in the clearing. We fell asleep that night lying on top of our sleeping bags, holding hands.
In the morning, I woke up with a rock jabbing into my back and the sun in my eyes. I must have slept late, because the sun had already risen over the tree line. I don’t know how I could tell, but I knew that Catie wasn’t next to me anymore before I even turned to look for her there. I rolled onto my side and pushed myself up. Sitting, I crossed my legs and rubbed the sore spot on my back, scanning the clearing for Catie. When I didn’t see her, I assumed she’d wandered into the trees.I stood up and stretched my arms over my head. It was when I leaned back, my face toward the sky, that I saw her, high up, standing in the tree. She wore the white dress I’d seen her in the first day we’d started working on her project, and her hair looked like the morning sun itself, resting on her head like a crown. She didn’t look at me, didn’t appear to have noticed that I’d gotten up. She seemed vague somehow, a blurred vision, faint around the edges.
I don’t know what I thought she was doing up there, or why I didn’t notice the sheets wrapped around her legs. When she stepped off the branch, I stood still, too stunned to move. The white and gold of her against the backdrop of green enchanted me. I had the perfect view of her as she spun, twisting beautifully in the air for a few glorious seconds. As I watched,one of the sheets shifted. The shock of the drop was too much for her improper tie. Across the clearing, I heard the crack of her ankle pierce the quiet – so out of place that the sound almost disappears from the memory.
When I think of it now, I can see the image of her – fallen, failed, a diaphanous heap surrounded by all those candles, their wax softening in the morning sun. And I feel the terror that finally crashed into me as she crashed to the ground. But even now, that terror is complicated by the beautiful picture she made there, and the knowledge that before she fell, she flew.