A Longer Short Story

THE DAY

Cate’s mother squinted.

She was sitting on the sofa, reading. The rising sun penetrated the Venetian blinds. They were slanted inward and downward, inviting the sun’s rays in the house. Her eyes were slits, intent on comprehending.

The father was in the kitchen, cooking breakfast. The table was set for four, as it had always been. She walked into the kitchen, preoccupied by what she had read. The clock struck seven. Her head came down from the clouds. She looked at the table. The expression on her face grew tense. The usual twinkle in her eyes grew dim.

“I don’t believe it,” she said.

He sensed her tension. He understood it. “Time has its way with everyone. It was only yesterday when–” He stopped talking, because he was starting to choke. Not from food. Not necessarily from his words.

Tears were streaming down her face. “We’ve got to make this a happy day for her. Nothing can be ruined. At least not today.”

Cate knew that her body and spirit made her soul. Circumstances affecting one part have just as much influence on the other. Her soul felt heavy. She stayed up most of the night thinking about what she was going to do after today. Her eyes were bloodshot and puffy from crying and from lack of sleep; her hair was disheveled; her usual perfect posture was not indifferently curved. Her whole body was trembling.

He took her in his arms, and he gave her one of those warm, eternal embraces. They stood together in the middle of the kitchen, silent, motionless. The sun shone brightly through the kitchen window. If you looked into the west sky, you could still see the moon.

It was an unusually cool August morning. Cate did not want to leave the warmth of her bed. She had to get up. She just realized what she had to do that day. She did not really have a burning desire to do those things. She was excited. Or maybe she was anxious. All of a sudden, she felt empty inside; she decided that she needed breakfast.

Cate eased herself out of bed. She looked at her hair in her bedroom mirror, and it made her think about the flares of the sun–how they seemed to go in any direction they chose. (It never really made much sense to her anyway.) She hung up her nightgown, forgetting she did not need to. She put on the clothes she set aside the previous night: a pair of jeans and a blue‑and‑yellow‑and‑red plaid, long‑sleeved, button‑up shirt. She went to the bathroom where she washed her face and brushed her hair. She shuffled downstairs for breakfast, feeling old. She slowed her pace approaching the kitchen. She allowed her parents to regain their composures, for she saw they had been crying. Interesting, she thought, this emptiness I’m feeling inside–it isn’t hunger. As she sat down at the table, her brother, Mark, entered the kitchen. He playfully pulled at her hair as he sat down. She didn’t bother to yell at him. She just glared at him. He knew then that she was not angry; she just wanted to be left alone.

Cate kept looking at her little brother while she picked at her food. She thought: He’s not so little anymore. It seems like only last year he was in kindergarten. Further and further back her mind drifted, and all of a sudden, Cate was in kindergarten …

It was a beautiful spring morning. Cate and her classmates were waiting for their teacher outside the classroom. Many played jumprope and handclapping games. She heard the various melodies that accompanied them:

“Extra, extra, read all about it…”

“Mmmiss … Mmmmary … Mack, Mack, Mack, all dressed in black, black, black …”

“Cinderella, dressed in yella …”

“Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar . ..”

Everyone was having a grand time. Cate saw the teacher coming, and she began to make herself cry. She forced tears from her eyes, she whined and sobbed. She convinced herself that she was crying for a legitimate reason. She performed even harder. It worked. She sat down on the steps by the classroom door and resumed the show.

A classmate approached her. “What’s matter? Why are you crying?” Cate acted as if she was too distraught to hear. “Teacher, Cate’s crying.”

The teacher got out the keys to open the door. The teacher asked, “Cate, why are you crying?

Cate looked into the shining, compassionate eyes of the teacher. She was really crying now, but no one could tell she had made the transition. The whole class was staring at her, wondering what the matter was. She had gotten the attention of the entire class, and she did not know why. Well–yes she did. When her teacher asked again why she was crying, she said, “I don’t know. I’m fine now, Teacher.” She calmly took a seat at her desk, and class was started.

Cate could still hear the echoes of her classmates chanting and handclapping. At the kitchen table, she couldn’t help but smile. She was almost laughing.

“Uh‑oh,” the mother said, “she’s lost it again.”

Cate came out of her trance and replied, “Very funny, Mom.” She couldn’t help it if she let her mind drift away, especially these past few years. She had a feeling that she would do it more often as she continued to live. About a year ago she concluded the longer you live, the more you remember. Or–the more you forget.

The father asked, “Do you want any more to eat?” He already knew the answer.

She looked down at her food and saw that she had barely eaten any of it. Her response was just as polite: “No thank you, Dad.” She quickly finished her breakfast and rushed back up to her room.

Now why did she go to her room? She thought she had no emotional attachment to the room itself. She went there to hide from her fears, her insecurities. Had she fooled herself into thinking that she was grown up? Or, that she will never grow up? She immediately justified it: Everyone is insecure about something; why should I be an exception?

These past few years she had gotten pretty good at convincing herself that she was not perfect. She started to make her bed. Many memories flowed into her head as she smoothed the sheets, as she fluffed the pillows. Cate hardly remembered her dreams, but she recalled how she used to cry herself to sleep. She would imagine that a family member has died. She would imagine her devastation. What would she do without her mom? dad? brother? She smiled, because she always woke up and everyone was okay. Everything would be okay.

Cate adjusted the blinds in her room to let some light in. She admired the brave, full moon as it reluctantly set in the west sky.

Time to get back on task, she thought. She had numerous tasks to perform this day. She put on her sneakers. One last trip to the bathroom to brush her teeth. She spent five minutes doing that. She rinsed out her mouth then she gave the mirror a toothy, crescent smile. Satisfied, she flew down the stairs and out the front door. She got her mountain bike from the garage. Cate pedaled down the road, on her way to some special places.

She traveled along the asphalt for about half a mile, then she veered onto a dirt path that led to a forest. Cate felt refreshed as she rode, as the wind rushed through her hair. She knew the trail by heart; she knew every bump and dip and overhanging branch. She sped through the trail, ducking and popper‑wheeling where it was necessary. She just relaxed as she rode, until her bike hit a fallen tree. She was ejected forward. She landed on her back.

The fall knocked the wind out of her, but she was fine otherwise. When she regained her breath, she got up and brushed herself off. Cate staggered, a little disoriented, but she still knew where she was on the trail. She walked over to that demented barrier. Why did it have to obstruct her path? She tugged at it and tried to drag it out of the way. She put forth this effort to no avail. She stood there, closed her eyes, and cried. She could hear tears splash as they hit the ground–distant, hollow. In an instant, she stopped crying. What was she doing? What an idiot I am, she thought. She needed to fulfill a purpose. That path was not just hers.

She picked up her bike and continued along the remainder of the trail, which was the same as always. But after her fall, she wasn’t so sure.

Cate finally came to a thick oak tree. That thing was at least 50 feet high. She laid her bike down. She jumped for and grabbed the lowest branch. She scaled the tree like a monkey, like a machine. When she got near the top, Cate settled herself on a strong branch. What a sense of triumph, of tallness, she had! A slight breeze carried the treetops, and Cate swayed with them. She hugged the trunk and closed her eyes and daydreamed about birds in flight, and about shooting them …

“Are you sure that’s what that means?” Cate asked, surprised. She and a friend were waiting in the fourth grade lunch line.

“Yup, that’s what my brother told me, and he’s in high school.”

Cate had seen it quite often since she started going to a new school. Her friend told her what it means, and she couldn’t believe it. How could a simple gesture, a flick of that finger, be so brutal? How could anyone be that mean to anyone else? Accidents kill people. She had only begun to witness the murdering of souls, with words and symbols. Cate hoped not to be a victim of such animosity. Hate. She asked her friend, “Gee, has anyone done that to you?”

“Nope, not yet. But when they do, I’m gonna punch his lights out.”

Cate thought, I would cry.

Even as those two were standing in line, a teacher was making her way to the front of the line, telling the students what had just happened.

The teacher was very solemn when she announced to Cate’s part of the line, “Kids, there’s been an accident. You see, do you remember the teacher that was supposed to go in space? Well, she and six astronauts took off in the space shuttle this morning –”

“–From Cape Canaveral, right?”

“That’s right.”

“So what happened?”

The teacher was already having a hard enough time. “The shuttle left the ground but it never made it to space. It exploded on the way up.” The tears on her face contradicted her unexpectedly calm voice. Even at age 8, Cate found the accident hard to believe. Accidents kill people. She would never get used to death. How could anyone?

She wasn’t even used to it at age 18. She felt like she has been exposed to everything bad–all kinds of “bad”–from what is morally wrong to what is only illegal. She thought she saw it all 10 years before. She opened her eyes to the noise of an overpassing plane. Cate continued to cling to the tree. She listened to the birds singing. She watched the tall grass in the near distance move with the breeze, synchronized, dancing to nature songs. She loved to defy gravity.

She must have been up there for an hour, thinking. She climbed down the tree, and she rode her bike to the nearby field. Nothing but those tall flowers and waist‑high grass grew there.

Cate walked her bike midway through the field. She found a patch of short grass and lay down. Her sneakers were saturated and her jeans were damp from walking through the dewy grass. She wondered, do my parents know where I am? She was 18. It shouldn’t matter to her what her parents’ concerns were. But it did. She always wanted her parents to be aware of her whereabouts. At least since the eighth grade …

She decided to stay for the game, so she called home to inform her parents of her choice. No one was home. No one answered the second and third times she called. Her team won the game. She didn’t get to play, because it was the first game of the season, and it was her first year on the team. That didn’t matter, because they won. What did matter?

“Why weren’t you where you said you’d be!” He demanded as he opened the passenger door and pushed her in the car.

“I swear, Dad, I tried calling.” It was almost a plea. She didn’t want to cry…

She remembered crying. She remembered how brightly the moon shined. If it weren’t so bright, she wouldn’t have been able to see how close the car door came to crushing her right hand when the door was slammed. At the time, Cate felt the moon saved her life.

Cate did not want her parents to be that angry or scared ever again. Her parents knew of her plans for that day, even though they couldn’t quite understand them.

Before, Cate never questioned her parents’ understanding. These past few years she had really learned to question–not the idea of authority, but their ability; not to doubt, but to question. As the sun subtly ascended the sky, she marveled at nature surrounding her. She knows a kind, loving God exists, and that everything He does has a purpose. She knows how intelligent God is to have created souls–how risky it is for Him to let mere mortals be in charge of their own souls. Part of having a soul is being mortal. A soul is priceless. So maybe we aren’t so “mere” after all, she thought. God knows what He is doing, and it is working. Probably not the way everybody wants, but it is what has been planned. He gives everybody the ability to make decisions, and yet He knows which way individuals choose. He cannot force choice in either direction, but He does discourage or promote: with curses or blessings; by then it is too late or very fortunate. That is where, or how, we learn, she thought: by dealing with consequences. But that seems so passive. People decide for themselves if a choice is “worth it.” People bring different consequences upon themselves, indicated by the choices they make.

Is this what she decided to do? To be with nature and reminisce and think deep thoughts? She really needed to be alone. Things were changing fast: situations, events, friends. Time wasn’t going to slow down for any of it. Even she has changed. She is rude to her parents. They are never deserving of the treatment she has given them recently. It takes all the energy she can muster to admit that she’s scared.

She is secure under the sun. It was getting warm that late morning. She decided to stay a while longer to think. She drifted off to sleep.

She was awakened around noon by the distant wail of a fire engine’s siren. She went to rub the sleep from her eyes, and once she touched her face she jerked her hands away in reflex. She was sunburned.

Her face hurt. I ought to be thankful, she though. It rained almost every day this summer. It was this one day out of the entire summer that she didn’t want it to rain. Her prayers were answered. The sky was clear and blue, and the sun was not entirely harsh as the afternoon unfolded.

She never got sunburned at church camp. The campgrounds were heavily shaded. Those years she went to camp, it rained the majority of the week; enough humidity trapped all of the heat, and often it felt like over 100 degrees. It was scorching hot, but Cate never got sunburned. She remembered once particular year–it downpoured most of that week. On Friday, the girls were supposed to innertubing down Cold Springs. That morning was quiet before breakfast. The leaders had informed the girls of an uneasy feeling they had about the day’s trip. The leaders prayed for a sign so they would know whether they should go floating. Shortly after the blessing of the food, an ominous feeling came over the whole camp. No one seemed hungry. All of the girls quietly discussed what they were experiencing. Not five minutes later, strong, gusty winds came, carrying heavy rain with them. What a relief. The whole camped gratefully sighed, knowing their prayers were answered, knowing they had been kept safe. A solemn, but light atmosphere lingered on the campground throughout the day. That evening, the sky was clear, the stars brightly shone, the moon was out. Other than the damp ground and dewed leaves on trees, you would not have known it rained.

Cate lay back on the grass, looking up at the sky. She wondered: What am I scared of? Whatever it is, I must overcome it, for it is affecting my happiness. She heard a rustling in the tall grass. She felt she didn’t want to stay to see what it was. She jumped up, picked up her bike, and she hustled all the way back to the asphalt road. Panting, she thought about what she needed to be happy. She walked her bike the rest of the way to a place that wasn’t her home.

It wasn’t that her family didn’t make her happy. Does she make her family happy? Cate had always tried to maintain a balance between how she treated her friends and her family. She thought she was doing a sufficient job. Then her mother proved her wrong; she didn’t want to think about how –that was too painful. What was that saying about failing in the home? No other success can compensate for failure in the home. That bold statement has crossed her mind numerous times. How many times has she slighted her family? She loved her family–they undoubtedly loved her. The recurring question, however, was: Had she failed?

Cate noticed she was walking her bike down a shallow hill. She didn’t realize she was so close to her high school. Yes, she thought, it is my school–I just don’t belong to it anymore. As she headed for the building, she heard the unconfident sounds of the marching band out on the practice field. It always rained during that week. Band camp, sour notes. Music was vital to Cate. Often she compared her life to an overture–probably one of those radical, contemporary types. The first time the piece is attempted, the dynamics, the accidentals, the crazy rhythms, are muddled through–a very rough first performance. Then it is played twice and three times, practiced, rehearsed repeatedly; and each time it becomes less difficult. Still, altogether, it is not a lovely piece, for in it exist quite a few tense chords. Those are always to be expected. They cannot be skipped–a rest would be misconstrued. Creating an unbelonging silence might be understandable the first time. It is unacceptable once the performers know better. Not pleasant, not easy. But in the end, it is worth it.

Cate made numerous friends through music: interactions with other band members, common bonds in lyrics of songs; harmonizing. Musicians, artists, were somewhat eccentric. Anyone could appreciate but not always understand them, with some effort. Surprisingly, Cate walked almost painlessly from the practice field. Almost. The band director was shouting something about practicing things right so they can’t be done wrong. Where had she heard that before?

It was not him. It was not the same. No wonder she didn’t hurt as much. She probably would have hurt more. She missed her old band director. She was sunburned.

She really wasn’t feeling all that bad. She walked to the school building and found an open door and went inside. It was quiet, except for the squeaking her sneakers made against the floor. The school was empty. Cate traveled the halls and corridors, peeked inside the classrooms, smiled at the familiar faces she pretended to see. So, she thought, this is where some of my mind started to develop; I know better than to say this is where my mind came from. The mind who came up with the ideas of schools did not get his mind from a secular school. It’s amazing–the capacity of the mind. But an even greater capacity lies within the soul. Is there such a thing as a “dead” soul? If one part is nonfunctional, might the other parts not work as well? Yes, the soul can be dead; a person can be alive, but not really living.

And can the soul be a place? Like a pool, where one can swim as one pleases, most of the time. At times, Cate is pushed in; she finds herself going too deep and almost drowning. Sometimes others attempt to swim in her pool when she doesn’t want them to. She doesn’t want others to drown in her pool. Recently she put up one of those buoy ropes that separate the deep and shallow ends. She would let anyone in the shallow part; but the deep end–well, she didn’t want others treading water in her pool, getting tired, drowning. Even Cate had trouble swimming in her deep end sometimes. Thank goodness for floaties. Whenever she gets tired of treading water, someone is always there to toss her a floatie, to give her a rest, and, at the same time, allow her to look at her reflection in the water. Then, it doesn’t seem as scary.

A really frightening experience is swimming in an unlighted pool at night. Trees hide the moon. It is quiet. You jump in. You can’t see the bottom. You lose sense of where the edges are. The water is cold. You don’t want to try to find the bottom–what if you ran out of breath before you got back up to the surface? You’ve swum in your pool hundreds of times–why should this be any different? Is it because of what you can’t see? It seems like forever that you have been telling yourself that you need to swim in the dark. How seemingly easy life would be if you could see everything. So, you are in the center of the deep side of your pool. At least you think you are. Don’t you hate the uncertainty? You are treading, treading. Your side starts to cramp; your breathing gets shallower and faster. Your cramp gets worse. It hurts. You start to panic. You are no longer treading; you are flailing your arms, purposelessly splashing, even though your limbs alone feels as if they could sink you. You feel your heart pounding. You know you are screaming, but you can’t hear yourself. You start to sink.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, out of the darkness, you hear a calm, steady voice. Sometimes there is just one voice; sometimes there are many. That voice tells you to float on your back, to relax, reassures you that you will not drown. The moon emerges from the trees, and the person to whom the voice belongs is revealed. That person, sitting near the edge of the pool, looks at you; you look at the floatie that person is holding–just in case you should ever need or want it. Both of you smile. You knew that person was there. You’re not going to forget anymore.

Cate ran out of the other side of the school building, panting. She ran her bike away from school. She ran. Sweat ran down her temples. She slowed to a walk. Without stopping, she looked back at the school. So, she thought, this is where part of it happened–how did it happen? She quickly dismissed the thought, because it didn’t matter how. She was content.

Cate was getting tired, so she got on her bike and headed home.

Her way home reminded her of driving one of her friends home one day. Patricia had told her some very startling news. It shocked Cate. For a long while after that experience, she felt disappointment, frustration, and anger with herself. She felt she should forgive Patricia for giving away such a precious part of herself, but Patricia really had done nothing wrong to her. It wasn’t about Cate. She just prayed that everything would be all right. She hated the distance that grew between them; both of them did. But they knew it was inevitable. A few months later, feelings were discussed, but not entirely understood, with a few friends in Cate’s backyard–under the light of the moon. She felt part of that old friendship rekindle. That kept her warm that chilly evening.

After that incident, a rapid succession of changes occurred. All among friends. At times, Cate felt as if she was being pushed into walls and stepped on. After a while, she still felt the contact of her body with those solid, abstract walls as she was slung, but it didn’t hurt as much. She thought she was used to it, but she wasn’t. Not really.

Cate kept riding. She couldn’t believe how exhausted she was. She saw her church coming up. She passed it, she thought about her morals, her virtues; her standards, and how her friends respected her. She thought about her family. She laughed, not out of contempt, but happily. She looked at the building. She thought, this is where part of it happens, too. A wave of energy passed over her. She pedaled faster. Suddenly exhilarated, she raced to her house, really wanting to come home.

Funny, she thought, I have been gone all day. The moon was on its way up to trade places with the sun.

Cate parked her bicycle in the garage–she put the kickstand down so the bicycle would not fall. She stepped into the house. The table was set for dinner; it was set for four. Her family was already seated–they had not yet started eating. They smiled at her and invited her to sit down. Jubilance shone from her family, and Cate wondered why. Her family noticed that searching expression on her face turned to satisfaction when she realized the answer. The recurring question never came again. The smile on her face was genuine; it was pure.

Cate’s brother, Mark, asked her why she was sunburned. She started to laugh. It was a guiltless laugh, and it confused Mark. Her father told him, “You’ll understand it, son. One day.”

Mr. Jennings was naturally red. The tint of his face supported his mercurial nature. Cate knew her father had been sunburned all his life. He dealt with it; he understood it. She was just beginning to understand. The expression of love when he smiled at her from across the dinner table was as sincere as it could have been. Their eyes held for a moment, then Cate looked up at the tapestry on the wall behind him. The Last Supper. Then, she held her father’s stare as tears rolled freely down her face. Her mother reached for her hand and held it; Mark held Cate’s other hand; Mr. Jennings took Mark’s and Mrs. Jennings’s other hands. They had formed a circle. Some force compelled them to look to the center of that circle. What they saw was what they felt: happiness, peace. They wanted to cry and laugh, but they let the silence fill its own space; that was more than sufficient. Still holding hands, that family bowed their heads, and Cate’s father blessed the last meal they would have with Cate–at least for a while.

Cate awoke with the sounding of her alarm clock: 5:30AM. She thought, what a weird dream that was. It was more than a dream, though; it was a bizarre manifestation of some of the most important events of her life. Her pajamas were drenched; she had been sweating. Her face was wet; she had been crying. She realized she could pull any of those events out of her subconscious at any time. Why had they come to her when she was asleep? It was more than just a dream: It was her life, as she knew it thus far; along with those events, her dream, too, was a memory. She had awakened feeling … older. She indeed, had relived her life in one night. Sleeping. Those experiences were in her past. She could do nothing to change them.

She got up, showered, dressed, made her bed. Her room was empty except for her bed, desk, and dresser. She felt her room was perfect. She grabbed her bags and left her room; she closed the door; there she left her past to linger.

Her soul went with her.

Cate was supposed to leave at 7:00AM. She looked at her feet as she put on her sneakers. She thought about her high school graduation; about how she always walked around barefoot; about how calloused her feet became as a result. Once she had soaked them, however, they became soft. She felt how comfortable sneakers were. From the time she got up that morning, she had been trying to analyze her dream. She knew who she was, she knew where she was going; she knew why. She just didn’t know how. How do you tread water? She knew she was always going to try. She realized a fine line exists between “live and learn” and “learn and live.” She was going to walk that line, confident she will make it, believing that someone will catch her and help her regain her balance in case she falls. No one was going to swim for her; no one was going to turn her tightrope into a plank. She would keep her head above water; she would look and walk forward. Arms and legs doing whatever was necessary to keep living–to be happy. She got up from tying her shoes; she was ready to run. No callouses, just strong feet.

She met her family outside where they had finished packing her car with the rest of her luggage. Her family prayed, blessing Cate’s journey–not just to college. Of course they cried as they hugged, but they were not sad. They had formed a circle, just as in her dream. They let go of each other’s hands. Cate walked to her car. The circle was still there. It would never break.

As Cate stepped into the car, she looked into her family’s eyes. Her voice was breaking because she was crying. “I love you.” Through tear‑filled eyes she gave her father, mother, and brother a soul‑imprinting smile. She closed the car door, turned the ignition and pulled out of the driveway. Yes, she thought, I am going, but I am not really leaving.

Cate reached the interstate. Only a few cars were on it. She got on, facing the sun. It was rising. She drove on a flat stretch of road. She smiled as she stared the moon down in her rear view mirror, seeing the moon get further behind her. The moon gradually disappeared, and Cate didn’t have to squint to see the road. She triumphed at the moon setting, because it was a new day.

2 thoughts on “A Longer Short Story

  1. Amazing that you wrote this at a tender 17. The autobiographical touches made me nostalgic, happy, and sad all at the same time. Such a tumultuous time that was. Great story.

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