Caden Grey

But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.

 

The last time I saw Caden Grey alive all I could think about was the first time I’d seen her eyes.

“She loves Jesus,” Dylan had said, gripping his phone and holding it out for me to see. “I mean look at her. She has to love Jesus. Nobody has a body like that unless they done a lot of praying. Let me tell you, she makes me do a lot of praying, if you know what I mean. Every night she’s in my prayers,” his gravelly laugh drowned my protest and then he spit a black oozing wad of chaw on the sidewalk. It hit with a thud, tiny pieces splintered onto my boot.

“I’m telling you. Just look at her, all of her.”

I shuddered and turned away.

Dylan didn’t know this girl—no way.

He was the oldest at our job site, the veteran electrician at 29.

He knew so much about switches and transformers, but nothing of taste and dignity. I’d been partnered with him in my apprenticeship and unable to escape his grotesque commentary during lunch breaks for every day the last seven and a half weeks.

Almost everything he said or commented on was sexually explicit. There was always a nude or mostly nude woman on his phone and then in my face. He’d mentioned Caden before, but today was the first time I’d seen her. She’d pierced me through with those eyes.

He’d discovered Instagram.

“To think I been paying for porn,” he said. He let out a whistle.

In front of Dylan I acted like it was the worst thing I’d seen and heard, but I followed some of those same accounts. At least I treated them with respect.

He liked to rag on me, call me the 20-year-old virgin. I was 19 and I had never told him I was a virgin.

From the second he showed me Caden’s photo, I could not get those giant green eyes out of my mind.

When Dylan talked about Caden, I wanted to be sick.

It was obvious she was different than the usual slutty girls he had an eye for.

I’m not what you’d call social anything, social media is no exception. My mom had let me use facebook because that was her social media. She could be my friend and keep a careful eye while I still lived at home. It didn’t make a difference to me. She’d always protected me and I tried to do the same for her.

The other things people were doing online were irrelevant until I’d seen those freaking eyes. That night when I watched CSI and Sports Center, they wouldn’t leave me alone. When I ate breakfast, they were boring holes in me.

Just before my apprenticeship began, I’d moved out on my own.

Mom and I had been on our own for years. I hadn’t really thought about it, if that would ever change or not.

She’d found Jesus just a year after marrying dad. She says that Jesus found her actually. She learned that’s how it works.

“If you are looking for Him, it was really Him who was after you,” she explained to me when I was still in grade school. “He died for me, saved me.”

She was convinced He was looking for dad, but dad believed he’d rather not be found and moved on before I was old enough to remember him.

I’d decided that I looked like dad from the one picture she kept on the window sill in her bedroom. It was from their honeymoon. They’d driven to the beach from Houston for two nights. A stranger on the pier had consented to snap the photo.

He was tan and tall and skinny as a rail and was looking at her. His dark hair was swept back, but one curled strand fell across his handsome face. He looked like he could eat her up and she was grinning back up at him.

I understood why she kept the picture.

Her sadness had crippled her when he left she told me, but she knew Jesus would take care of her. She knew Jesus would take care of us. When I got into high school she told me she knew that Jesus had even forgiven him for leaving.

I had not.

I loved mom more than anyone and I tried to love Jesus as much, but she said I just needed to know that He loved me. She had a sadness that hung on her a lot of the time and I wondered why if she knew she was loved like that. She did all she could to brighten my days and I wanted to do the same for her.

We had struggled to make it on our own and I knew that had dad any idea what it’d been like for us, he would’ve helped, or apologized, or done something.

He had remarried before I was two and moved out of state. She’d heard through a friend of a friend on facebook that he’d been killed in a wreck two years back.

This time when she mourned his loss, it was a kind of desperation. I hate to see her hurt but I did not understand the emotions that overtook her.

Watching her hurt was enough to crush me. I wanted to protect her. I did the best a kid could do to take care of his mom. She didn’t have anyone else. The came Rick. Rick said he loved Jesus. Said he would protect her.

Mom believed him.

I did not.

She married Rick even though he’d been divorced. She said he loved us, but you could tell he didn’t know what to do with a “nice young man” like me. I heard him tell her one night that we just didn’t click.

Rick moved into our apartment during my senior year and it was more than awkward to see them together. His kids began to come and visit on weekends—an eleven year old boy who talked too loud and a four year old girl who talked even louder than that. It’s not that I don’t like kids, it’s just that it was no longer my home. And this was in no way my family.

I felt like I was dying on the inside when I decided to leave mom, but I’d thought this would help her in so many ways. Instead of her financial situation getting better, it actually got worse for awhile. Rick was paying child support instead of supporting his new bride. She worked as much as she ever had, maybe more. There was no way that college was in my future. We qualified for help, but I could not bear the thought of her trying to work more hours that she already was or us going into any more debt before I actually started to earn real money.

The inevitable was obvious.

I’d taken a tech class in high school, partly out of curiosity and partly out of a weird tribute to the dad I didn’t know. He was supposedly very handy and even without a degree, he’d done more than ok for himself. It was an introductory class to electrical wiring.

Mom always told me that I was a hard worker, the way that he was—that I reminded her of him.

Near the end of school, I had picked up odd jobs on the weekends and without ever advertising as such was known as a handyman. It made it a little easier to let the college dream go.

Any desire I had to go to college was strictly linked to proving people wrong and thinking I could be one of those guys sitting behind a desk. I could work regular office hours and not come home with the leather-like skin my dad had in that picture on the pier.

I knew I was smart enough to be white collar, but my life was only trending towards blue.

“Jesus was a laborer,” mom had told me hopefully when she wouldn’t say what we both knew, that my chances at higher education were lost. “There is such dignity in working with your hands,” she said softly.

If she could see Dylan on the job site, she would never utter those words again.

The week prior had been long and difficult, but it was good work. A new subdivision was going in and people were saying that it showed our town was coming back. Outsiders were moving in.

Whether or not it was, I certainly did’t know but I knew we had work for weeks wiring all those new houses.

Though I had no interest now, I had agreed weeks ago that I would work over the weekend for a family my mom and I had known for years. They had been kind to her, kind to us.

Mrs. Cochran had invited her to church just before she’d married my dad. Initially she would not go, I think out of some kind of weird guilt or shame. Mrs. Cochran persisted and my mom went about six months into their marriage. When dad worked weekends, she’d go to church with the Cochrans. My first memories of Sunday school were of Mrs. Cochran using her old felt letter board and letting us kids put up the cut out images of Jesus and Lazarus on it.

“Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead,” she had told our class in a quiet, reverent tone. “They say that if he hadn’t called him by name, all the dead would have come out of their graves. Lazarus was saved despite his death.”

She cared for my mom when her sadness overtook her.

On her sad days I prayed that Jesus would raise her up like Lazarus.

I went by their house that Saturday morning knowing they were having trouble with their pool pump. She also said there were a few minor jobs she’d like me to tackle—like replacing some rotted boards around the window.

I rounded the end of the side fence line after knocking on the front door and getting no answer. It was one of the older homes in town, but a well built ranch from the 1960s. Long clean lines and lots of earth tones, it was the type of place that young hipsters now thought had a great retro vibe. I could hear Mrs. Cochran’s voice over the fence, from the patio. She was telling her daughter Lucy who’d been named for Mrs. Cochran’s mother, that I would be there soon and she should cover up a bit. Lucy ignored her mom as always.

Lucy lightly clothed did nothing for me. She was in some ways like a sister and the furthest thing from appealing although Mrs. Cochran would never believe that.

She’d been in nearly every class of mine from Sunday school to kindergarten to senior year and she was mostly annoying.

I knocked lightly on the gate of the privacy fence.

“See, I told you,” she said hurrying across the yard. “Girls!”

She opened the gate and greeted me. “Oh Jeremy, so good to see you.”

I said hello and glanced into the yard.

The Cochrans yard had a large smooth patio under the shade of the extended back roof line. They had had their pool redone two years back and added a stone wall with a miniature waterfall. Something bloomed in a different part of the yard nearly all year long. I’d helped plant most of it myself.

I’d been in their yard a hundred times, but today I stopped short at the gate.

Sitting in the lounge chair next to Lucy were those penetrating green eyes that already followed me everywhere I went.

Dylan would die.

I stared, gaping, only proving Mrs. Cochran’s earlier point that it would have been appropriate for the girls to cover themselves.

Caden Grey smiled slyly at my discomfort. There was no doubt she’d seen the look on my face before..

She didn’t know me, but boy did I know her.

She shifted in her chair to fully take me in and I choked out a second greeting to Mrs. Cochran and tried to focus on the words she was saying.

“The pool pump just went quiet…”

There were more words that I’m sure made sense and I vaguely heard them but I couldn’t pry my eyes off the beautiful girl I had been studying through my phone for weeks.

Caden’s green bikini barely covered her evenly browned skin but it matched those ridiculous eyes. I had wondered if the color would be so amazing in person, if she’d just applied some filter to make them so green. It was not necessary.

Her streaked blond hair was piled on top of her head and there were beads of sweat on the sides of her temple. She had a sweet mouth and turned up tiny nose but those giant green eyes were staring back at me.

A little perturbed Mrs. Cochran said, “Jeremy, you know Lucy.”

“Hey Lucy,” I murmured.

“And this is Lucy’s friend from college, Caden,” Mrs. Cochran said.

“Nice to meet you,” I said far more quietly than I’d have liked.

“Hey,” Caden replied.

She shifted back in her chair, closed her eyes and turned onto her back to face the sun again. The tiny gold cross on the delicate chain around her neck glinted in the sunlight.

She reached up and adjusted it as it had stuck to her sweaty skin. That was one of those things I noticed in every photo—that tiny cross necklace. She loved Jesus, like my mom.

It now lay just between where the clavicle bones ended on her chest.

I turned away before I let my eyes linger there.

My chest felt tight and I was aware of my pounding heart. I scrambled to regain some semblance of normalcy as Mrs. Cochran smiled at me through her teeth.

“Jeremy, let me show you what all we need,” she said.

I followed her around the end of the house to the separate garage as she went over the list of items she’d hoped I could get through. If I couldn’t finish it this weekend she said she’d understand.

The jobs were all things I could probably do in my sleep and within a few hours, but I couldn’t reel my mind back in.

Night after night alone in my house those eyes had burned holes in me.

I’d started conversations with her. I’d laughed at her stupid captions. I’d watched the stories with videos of her goofing off with friends.

These are the things I’d never tell Dylan.

I knew her birthday, her favorite color, where she went to high school, about her terrible break up last year, the two years of working in the food bank, the used Jeep Grand Wagoneer she drove, her job at the horse farm, the money she’d raised for that mission trip. She loved Jesus. That’s what her bio line read.

She’s the kind of girl my mom may have been before she met my dad, before she lived under the burden of sadness. There was sadness mingled with guilt. Maybe if mom had met Jesus sooner.

I went through the motions and had the pool pump working again in a matter of minutes but my mind was all over the place. Racing thoughts, the kind you have when you flick off the light switch and can’t get to sleep, would not stop.

Just around the edge of that fence lay that good girl.

I’d already felt like I knew her, but now I did.

Lucy had left town to go to college at State. I had only had plans of the junior college 20 minutes away, but Lucy was bright enough to make it. Having a family with significant resources—was also helpful.

Caden had put her acceptance letter onto her story so I knew she was also in college at State, but never in all of the conversations we’d had as I’d stared at the screen did she let me know that she knew Lucy. I never thought she’d show up where I live.

It was as if I had crossed over that glass screen barrier between us.

An hour and a half later, I’d finished the boards under the window and needed to add a coat of paint. Mrs. Cochran had stuck her head out the side door to tell me she had some lemonade on the patio if I wanted to come back around.

My shirt clung to my skin and I stepped through the garage and out the side door of it to the back patio, following her. The shade gave brief relief.

Lucy and Caden were sitting at the table on the patio drinking lemonade already. Mrs. Cochran’s insistence had ended with them both in t-shirts covering their swimsuits.

I was relieved.

I thanked Mrs. Cochran and reached for my glass as those green eyes reached out and squeezed my throat. I struggled to swallow despite my incredible thirst. I choked a little.

“It isn’t spiked,” Lucy said while she cut her eyes at Caden to see if she had prompted a giggle.

I wasn’t the only one who would like to impress Caden.

She did not laugh. She only stared.

It was like she’d seen me before. It was like those eyes could find me on the other end of the phone, soaking in every inch of her. Though this green bikini was new to me, I could detail all the others she’d been photographed in.

The thong with the jewel at the top of the middle back, the string bikini with fringe that looked like something from cowboy and Indian dress up, the retro suit with the cherry print, the red and pink number. Her carefully crafted photos had detailed descriptions of what she wore and she tagged the name brands.

With almost 10,000 followers I had learned she was able to get endorsements for the brands she wore—freebies of swimsuits and clothing. Company reps would leave comments asking her to contact them to work on product posts. She would always thank the company for sending things and the model them for us all.

I couldn’t stand to think of how many people she was posting for, it made me feel gross, but it didn’t stop me from looking. She had such a kindness about her, something genuine.

The first night after Dylan had showed me her account I had looked at it for so long, scrolling through every photo to the beginning. Over time she had deleted some older posts, that’s how well I knew her pictures.

The feelings I had while looking at her turned me inside out. I wanted so much to touch that skin and have those eyes see me.

Jesus loves you Jeremy I could hear my mom say.

When I stared at this girl, I knew that He did.

He created her, He created this body. That’s what mom would say.

I wanted to respect her and understand her the way I was supposed to, but still I would have pangs of guilt. I knew down deep that I wanted that body in a way that Jesus would not love.

That’s what made me want to be sick when Dylan would say gross things out loud about her, about her body, about what he would do to it.

It was disgusting because I wanted to do it too.

My mom had taught me that you respect women and that you only when you are married is it ok to have sex. She said that was God’s design. She was adamant about respecting women and their bodies. Few things upset her more.

“Touching a woman in any way is a sacred thing,” she told me once almost in tears.

I believed her but I don’t know if I believed it possible to live this way.

There was no doubt she believed and I think something of her sadness in that life before finding God only made her want me to get it right even more. She’d told me time and time again, Jesus had forgiven her.

I told her I believed. That was how I could be free, but now I was working off the guilt of the things I wanted to do.

I can’t talk to girls anyway. I don’t know what to say.

They are always the first to speak. I have found that with most females, I can just listen. I mostly just listened to mom and it made it a lot easier. It was easier for her to talk and me to listen and her to believe that I believe.

I set the lemonade down in front of me on the glass table and it was hard to distinguish my sweat from that of the glass.

I glanced up at her and those eyes held fast.

“You from around here?” She asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“Jeremy? I have gone to school with him since kindergarten. Well, I guess, used to go to school with him,” Lucy interjected. “He finished high school, but went to electrician school or something.”

“You didn’t want to go to college?” Caden asked.

“He takes care of his mom,” Lucy said with pity in her tone.

“That’s nice of you, but how do you have any fun?” Caden said in a lower tone that I liked, but caught me off guard.

“I did want to go to college at first. Mom needed help, so I took a journeyman position with Brown Electric. I should be licensed by the end of the year,” I told her. “Mom said that Jesus worked with his hands, that it is an honorable calling.”

Caden laughed out loud but stopped short when she saw that I was not laughing, or kidding.

I was unsure why she would laugh anyway. I stared at the droplet of condensation clinging to the side of my glass. It could not bear up under its own weight and released and slid down the side and onto the table.

When I looked back again, her smile was gone and she grabbed me again with her emerald eyes.

“I am sure that you do great work with your hands,”she said with a barely perceptible smile.

My face flushed red and Lucy giggled uncontrollably.

“Caden, stop. He’s a good ol’ mama’s boy. He loves Jesus…and they say he’s a virgin,” she whispered.

I looked down at my work boots and then scooted my chair from the table as Mrs. Cochran came through the sliding back door. I could feel my jaw tighten and I could feel Caden’s eyes now boring into my back as I’d turned toward the fence.

“More lemonade?” Mrs. Cochran called.

I’d already closed the gate hard behind me.

After finishing the second coat of paint, I met Mrs. Cochran at the front door and told her I’d be happy to return on a week night or next weekend when it wasn’t quite so hot to finish the list.

She nodded and thanked me and handed me a sweaty wad of cash.

I walked fast down the driveway and got in my truck. The door of my ’85 Ford creaked as I pulled it to and slid onto the bench seat.

I had to get away from those eyes.

****

That night was the worst that I’d had. I prayed and prayed.

Jesus help me forget those eyes.

I’d open my own only to see them staring and playing over in my mind, I’m sure that you do great work with your hands.

Her voice was deeper than I’d ever heard in that moment. It was usually light and flirty and sweet—the way a good girl sounds. That deep voice sounded like a voice that would come from a woman on a video on Dylan’s phone.

At church on Sunday I couldn’t focus. I sat with mom and the step kids. Rick sat at the opposite end from me. It was easier to just smile and nod. He already looked so uncomfortable in that pew. The sermon was on Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Pastor Maffitt told us that Jesus conquered the grave, and that raising Lazarus was a foreshadowing of how He would conquer death for us all. Jesus had to die so that we could be resurrected, like Lazarus.

I called mom Sunday night to check on her and she told me she loved me and was glad I’d come to church and invited me for dinner on Thursday. She said Rick would be working late and it would be a good night to catch up. I told her probably and asked her to pray for me.

“Jeremy? Are you ok?”

“I’m fine. I’ve got to go.”

As soon as we hung up, I opened Instagram.

I went to Caden’s profile. There was a new photo that clearly Lucy had taken Saturday of Caden in her green bikini. She was poised on the edge of the pool, looking back over her right shoulder. She’s winking at the camera. The caption read “I love mama’s boys.” Except instead of the word “love” it was a purple heart emoji.

My chest tightened and heart pounded again. She’s laughing at me.

My phone vibrated and I saw the notification. There was a follow request.

I touched the screen and Caden’s account name popped up. I’d never followed her before because her account was public and I could see all I wanted without her knowing. My own account was private. I only had two photos anyway. One was of my mom and me on the day she married Rick. We were both dressed up and she wanted a picture together. We looked happy. The other was of the day I started as a journeyman working under Dylan. Someone snapped it of us in front of the truck.

What now?

I accepted the request. I clicked the small follow back button.

A few minutes later, Caden liked the photo of me and my mom.

I exhaled and smiled. We do have a bond I thought before I went to bed. She gets it.

***

The following morning and the morning after that I met Dylan early at the Kangaroo on our way to work. I always got a chocolate milk and he always got a giant coffee to go with his cigarettes. He smoked one on the way to the job site while gulping down that black coffee. Later he’d just chew tobacco.

His coated yellow teeth with brown stains looked like they’d never once been brushed. Before the day even started, Dylan was dirty.

I’d not mentioned a word of the weekend or Caden following me. I can’t even imagine what he would say.

At lunch he pulled out his phone and called to me. I was sitting on the back end of his truck bed finishing my sub sandwich.

“Holy hell, son. Did you see our girl’s newest post?”

I thought I would vomit. I tried to act like it was nothing, like I’d seen it but was unimpressed.

“Yeah,” I responded quietly.

“It says she like’s mama’s boys! Whoa baby. She’d love you.”

I said nothing.

“Hell, you wouldn’t know what to do with a fine thing like that anyway.” He spit and wiped his mouth and let out a groan. “Let me tell you what you need to do with a fine piece like that. I’m going to sit in the AC for a minute and cool off,” he said.

I slid off the tail gate and started to walk away. He never invited me to “cool off” in all of our weeks together. The second time he’d ever said as much, I had a horrifying suspicion I didn’t want to be in the truck while he was “cooling off” anyway. I had learned to mind my own business while he finished lunch break.

Today though my thoughts ran wild and my blood literally boiled from the heat and the meatball sub and dirty early morning smokes and the images of Caden’s cross necklace on her sweaty shoulder and the spit on the sidewalk. If Dylan was doing what I suspected, ogling her and thinking terrible thoughts, I could only see red. Someone needed to protect her, save her.

I walked around the side of the pickup truck and yanked on the passenger side handle. The door was locked and the engine was running and I couldn’t see through the heavy tint of the widows and the terrible glare off the chrome. The music was up loud.

The window rolled down a tiny bit.

“Damn, son, what do you want?” He almost screamed with a tone I didn’t know.

“Tim is pulling in,” was all I could think to say.

The window went up and I rounded the backside of the truck again trying to think of how I would cover the lie. As expected he couldn’t immediately leave the truck.

When he did, he was flushed and clearly irritated but looking for his boss.

I turned his way and apologized.

“I thought it was Tim. Didn’t he say he was coming by today?”

He kicked the tire and grabbed his tool belt. “NO!”

He walked back to the house. Lunch time was over.

****

The following day, Tim did come to the work site and I had known good and well it would be Wednesday before he came by to “put eyes on our work” as he did every week.

Tim was a nice guy though some thought him a slacker. He’d inherited the business from his dad. He cared about the family name and maintaining the reputation. He knew nothing about the work we did, but he knew about customer service and how to run the numbers with his business degree.

I focused on the smooth, grey metal door and swung it open to reveal the breaker panel I was still labeling. I know I looked busy to Tim but Dylan knew I was just trying to keep my head down.

Tim followed Dylan through the basement and past me and nodded and listened as Dylan gave him an update on the week. He asked about my performance and Dylan told him I was catching on quick.

“Excellent!” Tim said before slapping me on the back.

We followed him out just like every time he stopped by the site. A little more small talk on the sidewalk and he started back to his truck when he stopped short and turned to us again.

“Megan told me I need to get a picture from the work site for the facebook page,” he said. Megan was the office assistant who’d just gotten her public relations certification from the tech school. She was helping Tim get the business more visible in the community she said.

“I left my phone,” he said patting his pants pocket looking for it. “Do one of you boys have a phone on you I can get a picture with?”

Dylan volunteered mine.

I unlocked it and handed it to Tim. He told us to look busy and snapped a couple of pictures near the work truck. He told me to forward him the photos and handed my phone to Dylan who stood between us.

Tim made his way back to his truck while Dylan looked down at the photos on my phone.

Dylan’s eyes grew wild and wide.

“You have a message from CadenGrey2.”

He stared hard at me.

My skin always betrayed me. Feelings sweeping over me were like marquee messages on a billboard. I blushed easily and now I could feel my cheeks on fire.

The gravel crunched under Tim’s tires as he circled around and then out through the side street.

“How do you have a message from CadenGrey2?” He demanded. “Are you stalking this girl?”

My mouth was dry. I could not tell him that we’d met. He could not know that we had a bond. He could not know that I was the mama’s boy. He did not understand the kind of girl she was. Frantically searching for words, I just stood there. I couldn’t look at him.

“TELL ME NOW.”

“I met her through one of mom’s friend’s on a weekend job.”

“Are you mama’s boy?!”

I’m such an idiot. Why’d I say mom’s friend?

“I don’t know what you are talking about,” I stammered.

“Did you two hook up?”

“What are you talking about? I literally was introduced to her. She was at our friend’s home. I said hello. She’s not like that.”

“How do you know what she is like?”

“I just mean she’s a Christian. It says so right there. I don’t know her. I don’t know.” My voice rose and nearly cracked like 14-year-old me.

We argued and I reached for my phone. Dylan whipped it across the gravel. It slid onto the hard clay and stopped near the tiny orange flag on the metal stake. He stomped away.

I picked it up and found the screen was cracked. I sighed and unlocked it. I touched the notification and the message appeared.

I need a good handy man this weekend. You available? She had written with a winky face.

I gulped and closed my phone. I tried to steady myself to go back to work. What is she doing? Caden wouldn’t talk like that—unless she’s trying to be funny.

The thought swirled in my mind as I tried to stop the mental recording of her lowered voice talking about my hands. This is not who she is, we have a bond that is more than cheap talk.

I finished the work day and realized I had a text message from Lucy. She hadn’t texted me since she’d left for school.

Caden can’t quit talking about you. I told her you are not her type but she is bugging me about getting together this weekend. What are you doing?

I could not think about this now. I went back to work.

***

When I got home, I finally typed a reply.

I’m not doing anything except finishing up work for your mom.

What kind of girl is Caden?

I’m sure you follow her on Instagram, you can see for yourself. 😉

I was sure from what I’d seen that I knew. I’d studied her for months and now she was studying me. She’s a good girl. She loves Jesus.

Seriously she is a nice girl. If you want to hang out, I will let her know.

I said I will be around.

I looked again at the Instagram message. If it was from her, which I guess it was, she had to be joking around. I racked my brain trying to find a polite reply, a respectful reply.

Funny. I will be getting some work done at the Cochrans. Maybe will see you around.

I added a laughing face.

Look forward to it she wrote almost immediately.

We continued messaging through a better part of the night. She told me about school, how she’d already changed her major twice. She said most college boys were stupid and that she’d considered modeling because of requests she had gotten on her Instagram account.

****

Things were tense with Dylan for the rest of the week. He still made lurid remarks about Caden and others but it was like he wanted to exclude me from his crass jokes. Frankly it was a relief. I realized he was showing her pictures around to some of the other guys on the work site. I was livid—I could hear them from afar letting out little whistles, or see them give him an elbow in the ribs and a wink. Sometimes they’d look up at me and laugh.

When we met early Thursday for coffee and chocolate milk, he was nearly a new man. He smiled.

“I been thinking, you might need some help with this girl,” he told me as the chime sounded when he pushed through the swinging gas station door.

I didn’t answer.

“I mean, the least I can do is give you some pointers. I know what this kind of girl wants,” he groaned. “Really what she needs.”

“I’m not going to see her again,” I lied.

“Bullshit.”

“I will tell you what to do with her,” he whispered as he stepped closer, his hot stinky breath overcoming the cool chill of the glass refrigerated door as I stood staring at milk jugs. “She’s gonna want you to use your tongue—

I slammed the door and strode to the front and out the door.

Thursday ran longer than expected but I texted mom as we neared the end of the shift and she told me she was keeping the spaghetti warm. I’d thought about backing out after the day I’d had.

Rage built within me every time I had to speak to or look at Dylan. He was eating it up now, winking at me when I’d look his way.

I drove straight to she and Rick’s place, still dirty from a long day in the heat. I had a clean shirt in the cab and I changed into it after I parked in the driveway.

I let her do the talking. Mom updated me on my step-brother and step-sister as they wandered in and out of the kitchen having already eaten an hour before.

I feigned interest.

She chatted about Rick and work and church and bible study.

I thought I would make it through the dinner and excuse myself early without revealing the turmoil I was enduring.

“So Jeremy, when we talked the other day you asked me to pray for you. I have been, but am wondering what is up?” She finally said as she swirled the last of her spaghetti on her fork. “I’m worried about you.”
“I’m fine mom.”

“Work ok?”

“Sure.”

“Met any nice girls lately?”
“What?” How does she know?

“Well, Barbara Cochran mentioned that Lucy introduced you to a nice girl she knows from school. Said you guys seemed to be hitting it off when you were there working the other day. Is she a nice girl? Cute?”

“I barely spoke to her mom. She seems like a good girl.”

“You know I just want you to meet a nice girl, someone who loves the Lord of course and that is hard these days. It’s hard enough when you have had a lot of experience at this. Just know you can talk to me. I mean it was hard to find Rick.”

“I know mom, thank you.”

After we cleaned up our dishes I told her I was tired and was heading home. I really wanted to be gone before Rick came back and we both had to fake being nice to each other. Living with them for the few months that I had were tough. It’s hard to be a grown child and watch your mother curl up with some strange man in the house. I left the memory but took comfort thinking at least he is still around. He seems to care about her.

The truck door creaked as I pulled it to and my phone vibrated with notifications. There was another message from Caden. She was asking if I was on snapchat. I told her no.

The next notification was a picture from her. I clicked on it and there were her green eyes watching me through the phone and the angle of the picture was so I could see the tops of her shoulders and outline of her breasts. The tiny cross lay there. The picture vanished.

Did she have a shirt on?

My hands were shaking. I didn’t reply and started the truck. I drove home faster than usual. My hands were steadied by squeezing the steering wheel harder. She cannot know what she is doing to me. I stared hard at the dark road. I cleared my throat and wiped my eyes.

There was another picture when I got home. This time she looked less seductive and was making a sad face. It looked like the snaps my other friends sent addictively.

I replied, Don’t be sad. I will see you this Saturday with a smiley face emoji.

She replied with the same emoji and I went to bed.

***

Friday was stifling. The 102 heat index and Dylan’s 30 minutes of “cooling off.” I was ready to come unglued. I knew he was sitting in that truck looking at pictures of this girl that I was now pretty sure I loved. How many perverts were staring at her right now.

Mrs. Cochran left me a voicemail with instructions for the last two things I was finishing up for her. She’d bought an outdoor spray paint for her heavy iron chair out front and more of the touchup paint for the wood work. She told me that Lucy was coming home again and bringing Caden and they were inviting a couple of other friends over to grill out and that they’d like me to stay for dinner and swimming. Summer was almost over she said.

I don’t know why she acted like that mattered to me. I wasn’t heading back to school, just back to Dylan every day.

For some reason I couldn’t sleep in on Saturday. My sheets were damp from the sweat. My dreams didn’t help. There were flashes of Caden and that vanishing photo. My mom was asking me if she was a nice girl, but it was Caden’s deeper voice coming out of my mom telling me that she loved Jesus. Then Lucy appeared and said she was the nice girl I needed and started to take off her top. I choked awake and rolled over. I felt clammy and nauseated.

***

There was a bit of a break from the heat Saturday late morning when a thunderstorm pushed through. The powerful thunder and wind kicked up and it rained sideways for 10 minutes. It went quickly and was replaced with steam rising from the sidewalks and street.

I worked quickly spray painting the iron chair out front and moved to the side of the house to touch up the wood around the window. Caden’s Jeep was parked in the driveway. She and Lucy were inside, according to Mrs. Cochran, chatting with Mr. Cochran and watching a replay of last year’s bowl game. The three appeared on the back patio as I finished the paint job.

“Jeremy!” Mr. Cochran called. “Been awhile.”

“Yes sir it has.”

I usually saw Mrs. Cochran each Sunday at church but Mr. Cochran’s work often took him away on the weekends, or that is what they said.

He shot his eyes at Caden and then back to me and gave a wink. He took a swig of his beer. Then I noticed that Caden and Lucy both had one in hand. I was shocked and Mrs. Cochran was appalled when she met us on the patio.

“What in the world are the girls doing with beer?” She demanded.

“They are college girls now, Barb. It’s fine.”

“It most certainly is not. They are not 21.”

“They are here under our supervision and I’m fine with it.”

The girls giggled in unison and Caden smiled at me. It was the first time in person that I saw the sweetness that had drawn me to her on the screen. She grinned. She made her way to me and asked quietly if I’d finished my work. She smelled like beer.

I nodded.

“Then go get changed and let’s swim,” she said. Mrs. Cochran agreed, trying to shake the irritation with her husband and the beer.

“I’ve got all the hamburger patties made and some veggies to grill. When do you need them Robert?”

“I will start the grill now. Just bring them out in about 20 minutes or so.”

When I returned from the guest bath in my bathing suit, the fire was started and Bob was plopped in a lounger working on his third beer while the girls were in the water up to their necks.

“Get in there,” he said to me in a growl.

I stepped in and walked in up to my waist. The water barely refreshed.

Lucy pulled away from Caden and looked at me.

“We invited Nick and Owen.”

“Oh good,” I said flatly. I’d played baseball with the two for three years. They were decent high school friends, but both had signed at junior colleges to keep playing ball. They thought they were a big deal. Lucy had always been after Nick, and Owen just went wherever Nick did.

The pair appeared a couple of minutes later. After the initial shock of Caden Grey in the flesh, they began a cannonball contest at Mr. Cochran’s request. They were laughing hysterically, shooting looks at one another.

Lucy laughed a lot and Caden just kept unraveling me with those eyes. She’d politely introduced herself to the two, not unlike she had done with me a week earlier. They were behaving like small children in her presence and I wondered if they had ogled her online for weeks as I had. I know that if they had, they still didn’t appreciate her. The only bond they had with her was like Dylan’s.

She made her away across the pool to inquire as to why I wasn’t participating in the contest? Even Bob had jumped in. I just shrugged and tried not to stare. Today she was wearing the retro bikini with the cherries. Somehow on her it didn’t look like an innocent throwback pinup girl.

She stood close enough in the water for her arm to brush against mine. The hair on my neck stood up and I know she could hear my heart pounding. I kept my arms crossed.

“Are you angry?” She asked playfully.

“No, not at all.” I said.

“Then why so uptight?” She grabbed my hands to pull my arms apart and smiled. I focused on her eyes so that I couldn’t elsewhere.

She stepped closer and I could smell the beer on her.

A wave of water crashed over us both and she screamed. Owen had jumped in over top of us both and soaked us through.

She laughed when Owen came up howling. She pulled her hair down. She dove under the water and popped up with her long golden locks dripping over her shoulders.
“Let’s play chicken!” she yelled across to Lucy.

“Yes! Let’s!”

I made my way to the steps and she grabbed my arm. “You are my partner. Let me on your shoulders.”

“No, I’m good. Going to help guard the grill.”

“You have to Jeremy. I am not going near one of those other two,” she whispered.

Lucy was already atop Nick and Owen stood awkwardly near Bob who was headed for his towel to dry off and get the burgers on.

She forced me under the water and then put one of her long slender legs over my right shoulder. She wrapped herself around me and I was trying not to let anyone know what it was doing to me. She steadied herself, holding my head and I could feel her chest. I tried to think of other things. She leaned down near my ear and said, “Hold onto me, Mr. Good-With-Your-Hands.” I held her calves and she touched my chest.

“It will be ok,” she said when she felt my pounding heart.

Despite Lucy’s size, Caden and I easily won two rounds before Mrs. Cochran appeared saying it was time to get dry before we eat.

Caden slid one leg off and then twisted around so that we were eye to eye as she slid down my chest. She swam to the shallow part of the pool and got out slowly.

I realized that she knew every eye was on her, including Mrs. Cochran’s. I suddenly felt uncomfortable and dirty. I could smell Dylan’s cigarettes and see his dark tinted windows. I thought of my mom and Rick snuggled on the couch. I looked at Mr. Cochran whose mouth was literally hanging open and then to Lucy who was red with jealousy.

Caden dried slowly as if she didn’t notice the stares and once again the incongruity made me angry. She was a nice girl, redeemed even.

The seeming slow motion moment moved back to real time with Mrs. Cochran gathered herself and set the dish of corn on the table.

“Girls get dressed and help me bring out the plates,” she called.

Nick put his hand on my shoulder and leaned in.

“Dude, if you don’t hit that, I am going to.”

Rage welled within me. My head tightened as my blood pressure rose. I knew I was red. I glared at him but he didn’t notice as he followed them into the house to help.

When we had finished dinner and dessert, the girls helped clear the plates and Bob made sure the grill was cooled and emptied. He told Mrs. Cochran that they were going to head in and watch their show and let the kids hang out.

Lucy and Caden had helped themselves to another beer and Nick and Owen were three in when the conversation began to dwindle.

Owen told a couple of disgusting jokes. The girls giggled. I just looked away. I said I needed to head out.

Lucy and Caden protested while the other two just sat dazed. I grabbed my bag and towel and stuck my head in the sliding door to thank the Cochrans.

I went out through the patio door through the garage to the driveway and was startled to find Caden had come around the back to meet me at my truck.

“Will I see you again?” She asked.

“I guess.”

She leaned up close and pressed herself against me. She whispered, “I still need a handy man.”

I pulled away. I was furious with the revulsion and attraction that were simultaneous.

She held my hand and apologized.

Then she stood on tip toes and kissed my chin. I turned my head down towards hers and the giant green eyes were closed. I felt relief and barely touched her lips with a goodnight kiss.

***

When I got home, she had texted me.

Were you upset because of those jokes?

I mean, after happened to your mom?

I was so confused. I stared at my phone wondering what she meant.

What do you mean? I replied.

It’s ok Jeremy. Lucy told me.

Told you what?

About your mom and what happened to her.

I seriously don’t know what you are talking about right now.

The story of the time that your mom was attacked, raped. I know it was a long time ago, but I also know you are close and jokes like that might upset you.

Now my mind reeled again. Where did she come up with this garbage? Why would Lucy go around saying this kind of stuff?

Goodnight.

Jeremy don’t shut me out. I am here for you.

I didn’t reply. Instead I texted my mom.

We need to talk.

Of course honey, anytime. Is everything ok?

Yes, I mean, no. Lucy Cochran is telling her friends that you were attacked. Where is she coming up with something like that?

Bubbles started on the screen and a long time elapsed. Then they stopped. Then my phone rang.

My mom was barely audible on the other end. She was whispering and possibly crying.

“Jeremy, I didn’t want you to hear that at all—and definitely not from someone like Lucy Cochran.”

“Is it true?” I almost screamed at her.

“Yes,” she said. She sounded so small.

“Why didn’t you tell me? When? Who did this? Are you ok?”

“Honey, it was before you were even born. I didn’t know the man, well not really and your dad he saved me.”

“What do you mean? “

“Let me walk outside. The kids are still not asleep and I don’t want them to hear. I don’t know if I can even talk about this over the phone.”

“I am on my way,” I said as I hung up.

I parked on the street in front of her house and found her on the front porch, head down and tears rolling down her cheeks. When she looked at me I could see the shame and guilt and sadness that I had seen for years but never understood before now.

She started to talk but choked, she was so stuffed up from crying already.

“You don’t have to talk mom.”

“I do. I owe it to you.”

“You don’t owe me anything.”

“I just didn’t want you to have to hear this. I was afraid you wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

“It’s ok. Tell me if you want.”

I could feel my phone in my pocket vibrating. I knew it was Caden and she couldn’t understand why I hadn’t replied.

“It was so long ago. Jeremy, I was raped.”

Tears came faster and I could see she was determined to get it out before she completely broke down.

“There was this bar me and my best friends would hang out when we were in college. We were probably there three nights a week. It was just the place we hung out. We would go on a lot of week nights and order wings or study. We knew a lot of people, it was mostly a college crowd. The people that worked there knew us. A guy I had known in high school—well, known from afar— started coming to hang out. His name was Rich. For two weeks my friends were going on about how good looking he was. He had spoken to us a couple of times, but just seemed quiet and reserved like he was back in school. Nobody liked him back then, but I never understood why. We would speak occasionally. I always thought he seemed nice. Then one Saturday night, there was a band playing and he asked me to dance. He was so quiet and shy, but we had fun dancing. I had more than a couple of beers. We all stayed until the end of the set and he asked if he could drive me home. It is so easy when you look back,”—she broke off in tears again—“to realize all the things you did wrong. I would never have let someone I just met take me home, but since we’d gone to school together I thought it was fine. We got to his truck at the far end of the lot. There was only one other car nearby, but I didn’t even know that then. That was something they found later. He opened the passenger side door for me and then walked around and got in. When he closed his door, he locked all the doors and said he needed to protect me, but the way he said it did not sound right. It was like it wasn’t his voice anymore. I know that sounds stupid, but the tone”—

“No it doesn’t sound stupid.”

“He took me by the hand and told me he had watched me for a long time and he knew how special I was and that he knew the people around me didn’t understand. I told him that was really nice of him, but knew immediately I needed out of that truck. My door would not open. I told him I needed air and would he please let me out. He said no, this was how I would be safe. He told me that I could be his.”

She began to sob uncontrollably.

I held onto her and let her cry.

“I don’t know if I can talk about what else happened. It was the worst night of my life Jeremy. I tried so hard to get away. I couldn’t believe no one could see or hear the terrible things he was doing.”

My head felt like it was going to explode. I could only imagine how red my face was, my skin felt like it was on fire. I just gripped her tightly and cried with her.

“He finally grabbed me by the throat and was squeezing so hard. I remember smelling sweat and cigarettes and beer and I was about to vomit. I had been pulled far enough to his side that my feet could reach the window on the driver’s side of the truck and I was kicking with all that I had. I still had my boots on”—The sobs racked her body.

Red and white flashes were in front of my eyes. I felt like I was in the truck with her. Dylan’s cigarettes, the smell of beer at the Cochran’s pool.

“I did finally throw up and he released me for a single second just as the window behind him crashed in. It was your dad. The only other car in that back lot belonged to him. He’d been there that night because a buddy played in that band. He reached through that window with a belt between his hands and looped it around his neck and had him pinned against the door.”

“Your father saved me,” she said shaking.

I could not process all she was telling me. There were so many questions. He saved her and then he left her, left us. What, how does that happen?

She looked up at me to see my reaction and pulled back when she saw how red I was, how shaken.

“Honey it’s ok. This is why I have not told you and this is not how I wanted to tell you. I was ashamed for so long even though I was so proud of the hero your dad was. I did think he was going to beat Rich to death before the police could arrive.”

“I felt like I died that day.”

“How could dad leave you?” I demanded unable to restrain the anger in my tone.

“I wished I had died that day. Anything would have been better. I had such guilt that I had brought this on myself—that I had behaved in a way that drove him to this. The things he said while he was hurting me.”

“MOM, I WISH I COULD HAVE BEEN THERE TO PROTECT YOU, to stop it.”

“That’s the thing, Jeremy, as crazy as it sounds now, it is like it had to happen for me to be rescued. I think God knew that this could be used to save me in the end. It’s like that part of my died and God brought me back to life.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s ok. Neither did your dad.”

“Is that why he left?”

“He held onto the anger and he wanted to make it better but he couldn’t. When I started going to church he didn’t understand and when I told him that Jesus saved me he couldn’t understand. He said he’d been the one to save me. When I finally told him that I could even forgive Rich, when I began to see a glimpse of peace, he only blamed himself more. He said he’d never forgive Rich.”

“I told him that love covers a multitude of sins.”

Then he left.

I looked the other way. I was shaking with rage.

She told me everything was ok now and again how sorry she was that this was how I had to find out. She was sorry that she didn’t tell me herself sooner. That she wished she could have protected me. “Don’t you see? It is all ok.”

I didn’t need protection. I needed to leave. I stood up.

“Jeremy, what are you doing?”

“I need to be alone. “

“Wait, honey, don’t go.”

I was already on my way to my truck.

“Call me when you are home she yelled after me.”

I slammed the door so hard and fast it didn’t have time to creak.

Despite my anger I drove slow. My phone on the bench seat beside me continued to light up with notifications—I’m sure from Caden.

I screamed at the dashboard, the windshield, my steering wheel. I banged my head on the wheel and cried again. Racing thoughts would not slow the way my driving had.

My mother afraid and hurt and screaming for help. The man who saved her abandoning her. The man who attacked her watching her.

When my headlights hit the edge of my driveway, I could see the shadows of the boxy Wagoneer. Her legs were dangling off the edge of the folded down tailgate. The legs that had been wrapped around me in that pool.

What the hell is she doing here.

She slid off the back of the Jeep as I got out of my truck and started talking before I reached her.

“I know you are angry. I’m sorry. I thought your were upset about those jokes. Where have you been?”

I stared past her. I couldn’t speak still.

“Jeremy, please.”

“I was at my mom’s.”

“Why?”

“I had to know if it was true.”

I watched her face as she tried to process, to read between the lines of my angry, abrupt responses.

The green eyes shone with a slow and terrible understanding.

“You didn’t know about your mom,” she said slow and low.

“No, I did not.”

“Oh my God. I can’t even. I am so very sorry. I never imagined you didn’t know this already.”

“I know.”

“Can you ever forgive me? Can she? She must be so angry.”

“She would never be angry like that. That’s not how she is. She’s just sad. She’s never really been protected. People have tried and none have succeeded.”

I began to fume again thinking of her.

Caden stepped back towards her tailgate.

“You protect her now.”

“I have tried, but I can’t. She’s married to Rick and now he is trying.”

Tears began to flow. I was humiliated and still furious.

She grabbed me by both hands and moved towards her truck. She clambered onto the tail gate and pulled me near so that she was closer to my face. She wrapped her arms around my neck and pulled me all the way to her and held me fast. My tears stopped. Caden was sure she was comforting me when she whispered, “It’s ok. I am here for you.”

She reeked of beer. My stomach churned.

“I will take care of you,” she said with the low tone in her voice.

I pulled back.

“You know she was attacked by a guy who had watched her for years?”

“No.” She slid over and patted the seat next to her.

I sat down.

“Yes,” and she felt responsible.

“That’s ridiculous! And terrible!”
“It makes me afraid for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“All those pictures you post and the people that you don’t know are watching you.”

“Stop it,” she said. “That doesn’t mean anything to me.”

“That’s not the point. Just stop doing it.”

“Are you jealous?”

“No, I am afraid for you. I don’t think it is who you are.”

She gave me a sly smile and her eyes held mine fast. I had imagined her looking at me like this. Never had I imagined these circumstances, the revulsion I now felt.

She must’ve mistaken my reaction for arousal.

She cocked her head to one side. She looked like she was posing for one of her photos.

“I can at least distract you for now.” She pressed forward and I looked down. Her low hanging tank top gaped in front of me and I could see her breasts still tightly tied up in her cherry print bikini top.

I felt my body react and the mix of rage and attraction unnerved me.

She knew I had seen, she wanted me to.

She reached one hand up to the string of her bathing suit top behind her neck and I realized she was about to untie it.

I grabbed her hand and wrist hard.

She blinked with those big eyes and then smiled the kind of smile that would have made Dylan go wild. I squeezed harder and pushed her back some. She scooted back into the end of her truck. I climbed in.

She was on her knees now and I sat next to her. She straddled me and reached with her other hand as if to try and untie her top again. I grabbed her other hand.

“Oh,” she giggled. “You are handy.”

She doesn’t understand.

I upended her and rolled on top. I released her wrists and slid my hands down her arms to her slender neck.

She strained to lift her head—wanting me to kiss her.

“You have to stop this I said. You are driving people crazy.”

“What are you talking about?” she answered trying to decide whether she should be perturbed.

“Dylan, the creep I work with, watches you. That’s how I first saw you. You have to know what you are doing. Those posts that thousands of perverts are looking at. The way Nick watched you, the way Owen watched you. The things they say they want to do to you. Hell, even Lucy and her parents watched you. If you knew what this does to people, to me…”

“Jeremy, it’s ok for you to have those feelings for me. I want you to.”

She wriggled free and kissed my bottom lip and wrapped her arms around me, pulled me down on her and then pulled back with a grin.

“I think you do have feelings for me,” she murmured as she slid her hand up my leg.

The smell of the beer filled my face and I felt bile rising.

“It’s ok.”

“How can you do this? You are in danger,” I said sternly.

“Oh really?” she growled in that awful tone.

She had done this before and she had never been denied.

She kissed me and tried to run her tongue down my chin.

I startled her when I grabbed her by the throat.

Tears rimmed the edges of her eyes, the glint of the moisture deepened the green and for the first time I saw fear.

I pushed her head down on the carpeted bed of the Jeep.

“Caden you need protecting. You can’t do this and be okay.”

She choked. “You can protect me,” she said.

“That’s what I am doing.”

“We have a bond,” she sputtered.

“I know we do.”

My grip tightened around her neck. The tiny cross lay just beneath my thumbs. My fingers interlocked on the backside of her slim neck and I squeezed harder. I could see all of the emotions flicker through the jade color. They weren’t hurting me anymore. I saw pleasure and then confusion and then fear.

“This is the only way to save you Caden Grey.” I breathed hard.

She flailed and struggled for only a moment before her salvation came.

I could see that phone screen and hear Dylan’s voice when he showed me her picture. Those eyes staring at me stared back at me now, as lifeless as on the screen. I could hear my mom’s voice again.

Love covers a multitude of sins.

 

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