by Mark Wagstaff
When adults said ‘How disappointing,’ she wanted to say it wasn’t for them. The rain didn’t care what people wanted. When the tent roof filled with water, when what was left of the garden dripped and oozed, the adults cussed summer rain, called it ‘disappointing.’ She watched raindrops land on long leaves, scurry and vanish. Saw lightning jag the sky—she wasn’t disappointed.
Late evening clouds, becoming night—she had two glasses of wine and felt baked and restless. Family and friends were flowing home, hugging Cassie, saying how great it would be, a real adventure. She saw uncles slip money in Cassie’s hands, saw friends give her keepsakes to treasure. A celebration of leaving, everyone saying ‘Stay safe.’
“Not leaving,” Cassie told her, like always, “We can facetime, we can chat. It’s only a year.” Cassie said ‘only a year’ like a year was small. “Anyhow, Caro,” she said, “it’ll give you a chance.” Caro understood this as code between sisters—with the older one away, the younger one had a chance.
Still raining at bedtime. Caro smuggled a bottle of red upstairs, watched—in lightning flashes—the sagging, waterlogged canvas roof that covered the garden. Like a planet, she thought, as lightning laid out its highlands and lakes—a wet, bare world.
More cloud, more thunder at breakfast. Four of them round the table, for the last time. Mom got upset—Caro hated that. Mom earned the money, full partner with a seat on the board. Female friends said she was an inspiration. When her mask wore thin, when she got upset, that was disappointing. Dad, with his schemes and inventions, was sad. Cassie had always helped him, the apprentice in his workshop. Caro, not good with her hands, not interested, pretended not to care. Dad so sad to be losing the daughter who saw how junk made wonders. Caro felt worse over that than mom’s sorry tears. How would it be, three of them, at a table for four?
Of course, they had to rush. Cassie couldn’t miss her plane. Mom offered to drive to the station and Cassie said No, it was fine. She’d have to get used to managing by herself. Cassie maybe didn’t want Caro along—Cassie looked pinched and angry—but Caro said she’d go to the store, get milk and stuff. She hated shopping.
Outside tasted damp. Thunder filled the suburban streets, clouds littered the tight, swirling sky. Caro couldn’t watch as mom and dad kissed Cassie, kissed her again, told her stay safe, to call, to message—to somehow still be present. Cassie shouldered her backpack, letting mom untangle the straps that nipped Cassie’s hair. She tilted up her case on wheels. Dad said he wanted to hear how some invention worked in the field. This weird phrase ‘in the field’ as they said goodbye. Cassie turned at the corner, waved and blew kisses. Two daughters, walking away from home and the right one wouldn’t return.
“Fucking rain,” said Caro, to get a reaction.
“They want it, where I’m going.”
“I told you.”
But Caro meant: wasn’t Africa last year’s thing? “What are you doing again?”
“I told you. We’re building self-sufficient, sustainable communities. People don’t want to live on handouts.” Cassie argued this so much with adults, the words sounded rehearsed. “Aid is a short-term fix. And it doesn’t reach the right people. We’re helping people help themselves. Efficient stoves, solar fridges, crop irrigation. Proper, useful crops, not stuff for export. Extending satellite broadband to improve education. We’re building stability, which is good for everyone.”
“Great bragging at university.”
“You’re such a little bitch.” That familiar, husky affection. “You’ll let me know mom and dad are okay?”
“What if they’re not?”
“Caro. I’m upset too. You saw how dad is. Mom cried.”
“Doesn’t suit her.”
“Caro.” Cassie stopped, but the backpack and case jogged her forward. “This is real, yeah? For me. Keep an eye on the folks. You can have my room if you want.”
“I don’t want.” A rattle of rain swept the road, one side to the other. “Will you have a gun?”
“Wars, aren’t there? In Africa. Will you have a gun?”
“’Course not. It’s a humanitarian project.”
“What if men rock up with guns? That’s what mom and dad are worried about, isn’t it? They’re not worried about mosquitos or crappy water. They think men will rock up with guns. I heard them say.”
“It’s checked out. The insurgency’s miles away. It’s a safe area.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I’d have a gun.” Felt weirdly warm to say it. What’s it like, Caro thought, aiming a gun? Rocking up, demanding attention.
“They’re worried about you, too.” Cassie always did that, switched it around. “About school.”
When mom shouted at her for cutting class or bad grades, whatever, it was some act of being a mom. She wasn’t that way, surely, in her boardroom? Caro wasn’t disruptive, not center-stage, not picking fights with teachers. She just wasn’t there. How bad could it be?
“Why don’t you go to school?” Cassie had been a real star in school—got merits and mentions and a sharp, pretty picture on the website.
Did she want fake reasons? Real reasons? What Cassie called real. About the real present day. There was school and there was Caro. They didn’t meet. “It’s boring.” The default, teenage excuse she hated to hear herself use. But the walk was short and the truth was long.
“So school’s boring. But sitting by the canal isn’t boring?”
“There’s boats on the canal.” More rain, more regret. Thunder rolled over the rooftops. Mom and dad will worry while Cassie’s away—Cassie wants her to play nice, because if they don’t have to worry about Caro, they’ve got more time to worry for her. It framed in Caro’s mind as a cuss to throw at her sister, but she just said, “It’s a whole year.”
“It’s only a year.”
“But when you come back, you’ll go to university. You’re leaving for real.”
“Foolish. I’m still around.”
“You’re not.” Every morning they used to ride the bus to school. Cassie still wore her uniform then. They looked like sisters. When Cassie went up to eleventh grade she didn’t have to wear uniform anymore. She wore dark tops, straight pants, like mom. Got a ride to school in a friend’s car. Now Caro didn’t know anyone on the bus. “You’ll go live with your boyfriend.”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
“You tell him that when you’re in bed?”
“Caro.” Normal times, Cassie would spin on her heel, go face-to-face. But the backpack and case could only push forward. Cassie teetered, her balance shifting—she grabbed Caro’s shoulder, her fingers dug in.
“Ow. Bitch. I hate you.” She caught Cassie’s arm—two sisters, locked in awkward balance. “Wish you’d stay for summer.”
“We got next summer.”
“It’s summer now.”
They moved on, for the train, the plane—the timetable set. “I don’t want to think of him as my boyfriend. I don’t want him hurt.” She pinched Caro’s waist. “You be careful, won’t you?”
What did that mean? What were the tests of careful? “You might meet someone else in Africa. You might stay there.”
They couldn’t pretend anymore to be in their streets, the only streets they’d ever lived. The main road creaked with early traffic. A train whistle sounded. Leaves battered down by the storm sank into the gutter.
Caro felt sick. “There’s vacation. I have to go on vacation, just them and me.”
Apologies came pre-pack. Caro said, “We’ll be sisters whatever.” An old assurance, from nearly-forgotten days when Cassie still got into trouble.
Cassie gave the expected response, “Whatever, we’ll be sisters,” but it sounded faded.
Now silence was stronger than both of them – just the suitcase wheels finding cracks in the concrete, the clink of Cassie’s backpack and thunder far away.
On the railroad bridge they stopped, how they used to, from when Caro was too short to see over without a boost. “It’s there.” Caro pointed where the tracks shrunk together. “You’re going there.”
“Your turn soon.”
“I won’t go to university.”
“Won’t. Won’t. What will you do, Caro?”
“Whatever.” She turned to her sister. “Love you, Cass.”
“Love you, Caro.”
A clumsy embrace, Cassie bulked for travelling, and Caro’s arms found it hard to hold anyone.
“They have a saying where I’m going.” Cassie gripped the handle of her case. “‘For a journey, take the well.’ Doesn’t just mean carry some water.”
“When you come back, we’ll get so drunk.” Caro said it so it was like a normal goodbye.
Like they agreed, Caro walked away. Nothing worse than being waved off on a train.
Stores were waking. The grocery list like stones in her head: milk, bread, juice, the paper. Only dad still read the paper—had a stack of them in his workshop, days and years yellowed and damp. A curtain of rain crossed the street again—she watched it, stood inside it. Did the people where Cassie was going really get happy when it rained? Did rain solve their problems? She felt her hair stuck flat to her face, a girl who didn’t hide from rain. When she sat watching boats, people walked or ran or cycled by. They didn’t see her. Just some girl by the water, someone with time to kill. The boats were cluttered, contrived—their dented watering cans, their flowery paint and yawning cats, the canal’s expected scenery.
In the last year or two, stores had changed on main street. Mom said their house had gained, whatever that meant, and stores had changed. A lot of dead old places that sold nothing much were gone, their signs ripped down, their walls fresh painted. Now they became familiar with names and logos she’d seen in the city. The brands and stuff everyone wanted.
Caro went to a coffee place styled like big city outlets, but smaller, constrained for their main street. The door stayed open behind her, spits of rain flung at her heels. The glass-fronted counter gleamed with muffins and cookies, pastries and subs. On the wall, coffee with showy names printed on pictures of unreal streets in some fake, horse-drawn time that never existed.
A woman, mid-twenties, watched Caro walk in, not moving till Caro looked at her. The woman stepped forward, her chin and glasses and hair catching the light.
Caro took a breath, held it. “Latte. Please.”
“Anything to eat?”
“Pain au chocolat.” Cassie wasn’t at the airport yet. She could call her, say come back. Cassie wouldn’t come back.
“Eat in or take out?”
“You okay?” The woman sounded irritable.
“Yeah.” Caro caught her own stare in the woman’s glasses.
“I’ll bring it over.”
She didn’t like being the only customer. Less early each minute, someone would walk in, chased in from the rain. A few went by, heads down, hands in their summer pockets. Everyone dressed for summer, even in rain.
Caro got her phone, flicked up her contacts, thumbed Cassie’s number. She wouldn’t call, she wasn’t a kid. Swiping the list, she held on Cassie’s boyfriend. He’d be at the airport, if he was a boyfriend. Boys were meant to do that. Driving back, he’d be thinking how long a year was, how people change with the weather. He’d drive home, want to be on his own. Caro would call him then.
Once, Mom and Dad lived in the city. Then Mom got pregnant. Moved to a little town. Bought a house that was their family house, that had gained. The place where everyone could find them. Mom would be checking messages. Every Sunday, she checked messages. Clear inbox, fresh for Monday. Always wanted for some new project, always in demand. Dad would be banging shit together. Some things he built were useful, some even made money. Caro couldn’t explain why she hated it. The only daughter now. At a table for four, laid for three.
The woman brought tall, milky coffee, a pastry spilling crumbs of hard chocolate. She followed Caro’s gaze through the open door. “Some days people come in. Others they don’t. You never know why. This unit has missed its targets two months running.”
Caro looked in the woman’s sharp face. “This is what you want? To work here?”
“Do a Master’s in theater design, you take what you get.”
“I won’t go to university.”
“Why would you? It’s four years pretending you can twist life to fit. What will you do?”
The woman gestured at the street. “Need money for when it’s raining.”
The woman looked at Caro. “Friend of mine makes jewelry. Bracelets and stuff. Sells them at markets, festivals. Does a bit online. She might use some help. Give me your number, she might call.”
Caro gave the woman her number, and people came in wanting things, and she finished her coffee and left without saying goodbye.
The rain became fine, dense mist. The thunder a distant complaint among the clouds. Where high flying birds and jet planes go. No foreign skies, just the sky.
With shopping not done, Caro went to the canal—a slick of rippling grey, dull as the clouds, the flooded path, its narrow, concrete walls. Kicking through puddles to the wall where she sat—soaked, but she sat anyway. The mist thickened, formed heavy drops that ran down her cheeks and fell from her chin. Fell on her cold, hard self. A barge slid past. The man steering had his shirt off, dog tags on his flat, smooth chest. Tattoos drained of color by the grey light. His long, curly hair corkscrewed with rain. He waved as he passed her, waved and shouted. She watched, watched until he was merely a stain on the weather.
Mark Wagstaff’s work has appeared in Tethered by Letters, The New Guard and The Piltdown Review. He won the 39th Annual 3-Day Novel Contest with off-kilter romcom ‘Attack of the Lonely Hearts’ published by Anvil Press. Mark’s second short story collection ‘Burn Lines’ was published by InkTears. www.markwagstaff.com