“Nothing,” I said, and my own voice sounded strange to me, like it was weightless, drifting up, up, and away. “I saw you.” The words were clipped and low. “Don't lie to me.”
“I'm not lying,” I said quickly, and I hated the way I sounded, so weak and pleading. “I just wished him a Merry Christmas and he shook my hand...”
“Don't lie to me!” he yelled, and in the small space of the car it was so loud, hurting my ears. “I'm not,” I whispered. “Rogerson, please. It's nothing.” And then I reached out and touched his arm. He was coiled and taut, a mousetrap set to spring at the slightest touch. As soon as my fingers brushed his sleeve, his fist was in motion, springing out at me and catching my jaw, knocking me backward so hard the door handle dug into my right side, twisting the skin. I felt like I couldn't shut my mouth, but even so I was still trying to explain. “Rogerson,” I said. “I”
“Shut up, Caitlin,” he said. “But” He slapped me hard, across the other cheek, and it felt like part of my face was shattering into tiny pieces. I covered my face with my hands, stretching my fingers to cover the span from my forehead to my chin, as if without them I would fall apart altogether. “This isn't my fault,” he said in a low voice, as I tasted blood in my mouth. “It isn't, Caitlin. You know what you did.“ I didn't say anything. I didn't think I could take another blow. Instead, I closed my eyes and thought of trivia, again: questions and answers, the solidness and safety of facts. When the biggest secret about Rogerson was the limitless stretch of what he knew. What instrument do sailors use to measure time? I told myself to breathe. A chronometer. Where in Italy did pizza originate? My cheek was still burning, all the way up to my temple. Naples. I turned my head, resting my sore cheek against the cold glass of the window, and looked at my house. We had a fat plastic Santa standing by the front steps, white lights strung in the tree by the walk, and a row of tiny reindeer mounted on the roof of the garage. Upstairs, I could see my father sitting in his chair in the square of one window, reading the paper, just like he had in a million nights of my childhood. I closed my eyes, willing him somehow to look through the dark car windows and rush out and save me from Rogerson, and from myself. But he didn't. Instead, my father did what he always did: He folded the paper, picked up the remote, moving across channel after channel, waiting for me and Cassto come home.
When I came inside twenty minutes later my mother was taking a casserole out of the oven. ”Oh, my goodness!“ she said, her eyes widening. She plunked it down on the counter and started across the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel decorated with tiny Christmas trees. ”What happened to you, Caitlin?“ ”I fell,“ I said quickly, even as she leaned in close, brushing my hair off my forehead. In Rogerson's rearview mirror, after we'd smoked a bowl, it hadn't looked that bad: just a bit red, puffy in places. ”Fell?“ she said. ”Jack, come in here!“ ”Mom, I'm fine.” My father appeared in the kitchen doorway, the line in his forehead already creased and deep. “There was just some ice by the mailbox and I slipped.”
“Oh, I just knew it!” she said, pushing me down into a chair: The sore spot on my side hit against the armrest and I cringed, sucking in a breath. She didn't notice. “Jack, didn't I tell you walking back from Boo's I slipped there? Didn't I? Caitlin, was Rogerson with you?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “He dropped me off and then when I started up the walk my feet just flew out from under me.”
“Well,” my father said, his gaze steady on my face, “it looks like you hit right there on your jaw. Get that ice pack out of the freezer, Margaret, before the swelling gets any worse.”
“I'm fine,” I said again. “It doesn't even hurt anymore.” It was strange that I didn't even consider telling the truth. I was just stoned and bleary, so cried out that all I could think of was curling up on my bed and going to sleep. Rogerson had lit the bowl without even a word, even as I sat there beside him, my ears ringing, and after a few hits everything just seemed to fade out. Increasingly, that was the way the pot worked with me lately. After a couple of hits, whatever had been bothering me drifted to arm's length, like the end of a song on the radio you can just barely hear, just fading away. And then he pulled me close to him, told me he loved me and kissed me hard and urgently, his hand curling around the back of my neck, the way he knew I liked it. As if somehow, that way, he could give back what he'd taken from me. And I let him. Now, I closed my eyes as my father pressed the ice pack against my face, making it sting as the coolness seeped in slowly. I told myself i had too many secrets already: the drugs, cigarettes, my downward cheerleading spiral. If I let one out, the rest would tumble behind it, out of my control, like wild horses let loose to stampede. It was funny. What I'd loved most about Rogerson was that he took me to a place so far from anywhere Cass had been. And now, him hitting me was the same thing. Cass wouldn't have taken up with Rogerson, just like she never would have stayed with anyone who hurt her. But I wasn't Cass, not even close. I was weaker. And I'd keep this secret before I'd prove that again. “You need to keep this there until the swelling goes down,” my father said now, taking my hand and pressing it against the ice pack. “Okay?”
“It's just so red,” my mother said in a worried voice. “You must have hit so hard.”
“Yeah,” I told her, averting my eyes. “I did.” My father was putting on his jacket. “I'm going to go put some salt on the walk,” he said to my mother. “I think we've got some left over from last year out in the shed.”
“Yes, yes, it's behind the potting soil,” she said, following him down the stairs. “And Jack, make sure you check the whole spot, won't you? I'd hate to see anyone else get hurt.” I moved the ice pack to my cheek. I could still taste blood in my mouth. “Now, Caitlin,” my mother said as she came back up the stairs, the door clicking shut behind my father. “I'm going to run a hot bath for you. Won't that be nice? And when you're done, I'll bring dinner to your room so you can eat in bed, and rest. Okay?”
“Mom, you don't have to”
“Hush. Go get undressed and I'll let you know when it's ready.” She started out of the kitchen, then stopped and put her hand on my shoulder, bending down to kiss me gently on the forehead. She smelled like vanilla and Joy perfume, and suddenly I felt like I might start crying again. “You really scared me, Caitlin,” she said, smiling as she brushed her fingers through my hair. “I don't know what I would do if something happened to you.” I could tell her, I told myself. I could tell her right now and fix this. I could say that he hits me and I hate cheerleading and I miss Cass but I know why she left and I wish I could make everything better but I can't, I can't, I can't even tell you where it hurts, not now. “Don't worry,” I said instead, as she ruffled my hair and walked away, my mother, to do what she did best, to take care of me. “I'm fine.” When I went to my room to change into my bathrobe, my father was still outside, scattering salt by hand down the length of our walk. When he reached the front steps he went back, across the grass, to the spot by the mailbox where I'd told him I'd fallen, and scattered another handful there. Then, as I watched, he spent a good five minutes scraping his foot back and forth across the pavement, searching for slick spots, as if that was all it would take to keep us safe.