Caddie never told the whole truth. She learned early on there was a sly power in that. When Mom asked, Did you get your spelling done?, Caddie would say, All but the last two, even if she’d finished all ten initial-g words. Maybe it was because gallant was the last word or gracious, and she wanted to hold on to them a little longer. These weren’t lies that ruined lives. They made things live longer, made them hers.
Gallant. She was eleven and read a gothic romance about a dashing man whose black curls covered his ears. He was remote until challenged and then “rose to the occasion,” as the author said.
“Caddie? Did you put the clothes in the dryer?” her mom called from the dim front room, where she sat legs tucked up on the couch, book pressed open on her thigh.
Yes, she had, but Caddie said, “Oh! I was just down there and forgot.” And she rumbled down the stairs in her night slippers. The basement talked at night. It’s the furnace, their mom would say, the water heater. But she and Tina knew about the eyes behind the burlap bookshelves, the fingertips waiting at the white vinyl not quite pulled across the stairwell closet.
So, why would she want the nightmare basement experience to live longer? Maybe it was the challenge. “Caddie, it’s ok,” her mom called from the sanctuary of light upstairs. “I’ll get it in the morning.” Her mom would “get” everything. Maybe she lied so that her mom’s reminder wasn’t for nothing.
Her heart pounded as the last stair dropped. Around the broken bench, past the faded chalkboard, across the speckled yellow floor, she flipped on the laundry room light. The white washer and dryer waited without even a breath—because Caddie had shifted the clothes to dry hours ago. To the left of the machines, a rope, strung from joist to joist, sagged with wet jeans. Also, her handiwork.
The fairies would be proud if they were what lived in basements, but down here Caddie didn’t know what lived.
Her lie, for one.
It was strange to sit at night on the shiny concrete floor, the fluorescent light caught between legs of jeans, shirtsleeves, sheets, the empty dryer rumbling now like her wobbly legs so sure a monster chased her. Maybe she was succumbing to evil down there alone. I am a liar; come take me.
“Caddie? There’s time for cookies!” Her mom’s voice was a symphony of joy twirling down the stairwell.
Another lie had been to Marco on the playground—after-hours, school long out—while the sun escaped the horizon. “I drank my dad’s bottle of Scotch,” he’d said. “Made me puke two days.”
Caddie had said, “That cost $42, you know. I bought it once. Well, not me, of course, but with Uncle Jay. ‘Tres extravagant’ he’d said, ‘but we’re celebrating!’”
“Celebrating what?” Marco had asked.
Caddie had shrugged. “His wife died. Finally. Years of wasting away, hardly breathing so she couldn’t talk to him. Tears bit the corner of his eyes.” She didn’t have an uncle Jay, but she did see her mom pay for that Scotch and wrap it with a bow for Uncle Stan’s Christmas gift. That event was complete. A Scotch celebration lived now in the telling.
Cookies with her mom was nice. They’d each fulfilled their obligations. That night, Caddie dreamed of horses leaping dark creeks in the forest. By morning, she had ideas.
“Caddie! Where’s my green sweater? I’ll kill you if—” Her sister, Tina, didn’t finish her threat. Tina had slept till noon and spent the next two hours not speaking. Caddie did like that sweater—seafoam green with pearl buttons. Tina wore it with her white skirt, looking like something that should float on water. Caddie liked it, maybe coveted it, but she hadn’t done anything with it.
“In your closet, I’m sure,” Caddie called back across the hallway separating their bedrooms. Caddie’s room was supposed to be a dining room, but when Tina hit teen years, Dad had built a wall where the old arched entryway had been. Then the table had come out and Caddie’s bed had gone in.
Had the sweater been hanging on the laundry room clothesline last night? Yes, she remembered it now, past their mom’s blue blouse at the end.
Caddie let her book drop on the bed, and shuffling her feet, she fingered the doorframe as she peeked in Tina’s room. The hangers in her closet were pushed to each side, and Tina knelt on the floor, hands buried in a basket of sweatshirts.
“It wouldn’t be stuffed in there,” Caddie said. “It’d get wrinkled.”
Tina didn’t look up. “No kidding, but it’s not up there.” A hand swished up toward the parted hangers, and Caddie stepped over. The closet light shone dimly, shadowed by boxes, shadows crossing over Tina’s back that heaved with a sigh. “You wore it, didn’t you?” she said.
Caddie fiddled with some hangers, pretending to look. “I did not. Did you look under your bed?” Tina’s face was red when she sat back against the closet door. “I’ll look,” Caddie said. Her throat felt tight when she kneeled, pulling up the bedspread, peering into the dark. She felt her own face flush red. Stupid Tina, why’d she get all emotional over a sweater?
Caddie peered under her arm, back at Tina. “Nothing here. Want me to check the laundry room?” Of course it was there, clean, sans wrinkles, but she’d be the hero now, trekking all the way down those metal-rimmed stairs, past chalkboard and bench, barefoot on the speckled tile, cool concrete.
Huffing, Tina stood. “No.” She brushed right by Caddie, like she was another clothes hanger to push aside. Caddie heard Tina’s feet rumbling down those stairs, imagined her relief at finding the sweater, safe and ready for the day. She sat at the edge of the bed, empty-handed.
When Tina returned, sweater like a whisper over her arm, she put the other hand hard on her hip and stared until Caddie stood and left the room. The door slammed closed.
In her own room, the heroine of Caleren Castle spurred her dappled-gray horse through Caleren woods. Caddie stared at the book face down on the bed. She saw herself climbing the basement stairs, the cool air wrapping her, seafoam across her arm, and Tina’s great big smile, a small hug even, as Caddie presented the lost treasure. Really, how many adventures could a young girl have? A young girl in a clean little house, on a friendly neighborhood street?
The tree outside her window swelled with red buds. They’d burst soon, soaking up that warming sunlight. She felt it pushing through the glass, creeping over her bed, hitting her right in the belly.
Caddie stuffed bare feet into her gym shoes and tugged the blue sweatshirt over her head. Then she pulled it back off and rummaged in her own closet basket. Green. Not seafoam but clover green, good-luck green. She smoothed the soft sweatshirt over her, its big pockets across her stomach. She stuffed the paperback heroine into the pocket along with a pen.
“Where are you off to, Caddie?” Her mom’s voice startled her. Caddie hadn’t even seen her there at the kitchen sink. Sunlight filmed the room, her mom a gray shadow. Sometimes her vision went weird like that. She didn’t want glasses. She didn’t want a brain tumor. Their dad read them news stories sometimes about less fortunate children. “We’re not rich,” he’d say, “but we’re lucky.” Lucky, like the green sweatshirt.
“Meeting Marco,” she said, springing through the screen door before the lie turned into a story. She had other plays in mind today. Maybe the heroine didn’t make it through the woods today. Maybe the trusted, dappled horse threw her—her head, her shoulder banging into the oak tree, darkness stepping down, stair after stair til she swallowed it.
A field topped their street along with five others. She didn’t want to meet Marco or the other kids, so Caddie took the weedy path behind the factory. A creek ran through, dry by summer but trickling now, black in the sunlight. Its bottom was muck, and they weren’t to go in it, but she poked around often with a stick, stabbing at wrappers and ragged strips of cloth and twined branches.
At the creek’s curve, sunlight patched the ground, and she sat on the largest concrete slab. Though it slanted uncomfortably left, the others were too jagged to sit on. She let her gym-shoed feet steady her in place and opened Caleren Castle.
Sunlight filled the spaces between branches, warming like walls around her, but the Caleren heroine rode hard through the thickening woods. Caddie clicked her pen. In the margins, she changed the story. A stumble. The horse on the mossy rocks tripped, her heroine flying forward. Yes, that was where she’d left off. Like a heap of clothes tossed to the ground, her heroine lay. Her scalp bled under thick gold hair. Her cheek burned red, but her lashes rested on lashes, her mind adrift.
Caddie hunched forward, her letters tinier and tinier as they rounded the page.
A shadow stole the sunlight from her shoes, smeared her shins and knees. She scrunched further, deep in the story, demanding all else fade, but a chill stepped up her back. Metal-rimmed stair after metal-rimmed stair, her mind flashed with the black slit behind the white curtain, and she jumped from the rock. Her heroine fell to the mud.
“Don’t be afraid, little girl.”
Those words piled in her throat, seeping down as she backed away from the gray, wrinkled, rumpled thing standing with his hand palm up, as if cupping sunlight, presenting to her a poison drink.
“What are you doing there?” he said. His hand turned, dropped the sun onto her book.
Caddie stepped back. Her left foot slid on the silty bank. Face skyward, she waved her arms but felt gravity, not wings. She was going down. She didn’t remember any cold-water splash, the way her elbows must have sunk into mud, the thud as her temple hit rock. The last she remembered was her arms flapping and the man’s hand passing her the chalice.
“A concussion will do that,” she heard them say, surrounding her like trees around the hospital bed. She didn’t understand what the concussion was supposed to have done. She had a headache. Her mom had to stop Caddie’s fingers from wanting to touch the soft, padded gauze on the side of her head. She looked at it in the mirror and wished they hadn’t cleaned the blood from her hair before she’d seen it. “Mud from head to toe,” they said, and, “Told them not to go in that creek.”
But she hadn’t gone in the creek. She’d been backing away from the poison. Like Mom and Dad now, backing out of the room to hear what the doctor was saying.
“Tina! Did you find it?” Caddie asked.
“There’s no chalice, Caddie,” Tina said, eyes rolling.
“The man wanted me to drink it. It looked like sunlight. The sky . . . when I was falling was the brightest blue.”
Caddie had bruises on each arm. When they found her, she was lying on the side of the creek. There were no other marks except on her temple. No chalice. A concussion will do that.
They’d found the muddy cover to Caleren Castle, but the pages had been torn out. All of them. Every story she’d told between the covers was gone. Was that what the concussion had done? She had no lies. They stood around her, waiting, and all she had was a missing chalice and one flapping, failed flight against gravity.