“Hey,” she said as I came over, sitting down beside her. “Hey.” She swallowed, hard, then blurted out, “I understand if you hate me. I almost didn't even come here today.”
“Rina,” I said. “Why would I hate you?” She looked at me. “I didn't know that's why you wanted to leave that night at the lake. If I'd known”
“No one knew,” I said. Again, this was easier. Another draw. “It's nobody's fault.”
“Like hell. We all know whose fault it is.” She shook her head, angry now: Rina loved a cause. “That bastard. If he shows his face anywhere near me, I swear to God I'll...” I took a deep breath. There was still some small part of me that missed Rogerson, as crazy as that was. “Let's not talk about him, okay?” I said. When she glanced at me I added, “I mean, I do a lot of that in here already. You know?” She sighed, still huffy, and nodded her head. “Okay. Fine. What do you want to talk about?” I pulled my legs up underneath me. “Anything. Gossip. Dirt. Fill me in.” She grinned, raising her eyebrows. “Cheerleading or general?”
“Okay,” she said, dropping her purse, kicking off her sandals, and getting comfortable. My best friend, Rina. I hadn't even realized how much I'd missed her. “Listen to this.”
Some days were good. I'd make a decent lanyard in crafts, perfect the mayonnaise- relish ratio for the potato salad in the group kitchen, beat my father at Rummy, and sleep thickly through the night and wake up feeling rested, changed, like things were actually getting better. But other days I thought about Rogerson, wondering where he was or what he was doing. I kept the necklace he'd given me in its box, buried in my bottom drawer. It was the one thing I had left of him, and sometimes I'd just pull it out and hold it, sliding it through my fingers. I wondered if he ever thought of me, and hated the pang I felt when I told myself he didn't.
I wouldn't blame my parents, or Rina. I was even getting that much closer to not blaming myself. So it should have been easy to finally lift that heaviest of weights and place it squarely where it belonged, on Rogerson. But this, even on the good days, was hard. After all that had happened^ how could I miss him? But I did. I did.
I'd been at Evergreen less than a month when my mother brought me a pile of mail from home. A flier about the SATs, a stack of homework assignments from school, a catalog from a cheerleading supply company, trying to sell me barrettes with my school colors. And, at the bottom, two letters. One from Corinna, one from Cass. “She's been worried about you,” my mother said as I turned the envelope, addressed in Cass's clean script, in my hand. “I don't know who the other one is from.” I waited until she was gone before I went to that bright hallway, sat down with my back to one of the windows, and opened Corinna's letter first. I'd never seen her handwriting before, the letters small and curly, like a child's hand. She'd written in purple ink, on hotel stationery: The Red Rambler Inn, Tucson, Arizona. Dear Caitlin, By now, I guess you know that I decided to make my wild escape from both Applebee's and David. It was easier than I thought it would be. Between the power always getting turned off and our constant diet of Ramen noodles, things were getting less and less romantic. I do miss him, though. I've thought about him a lot on this long drive, and about you too. I hope you don't think I'm a bad friend for not telling you I was going. I just didn't want to leave you with a bunch of questions to answer. You were a good friend to me, Caitlin. Without the good times we had I don't think I would have even made it to the spring.
My little car is still holding up, although things got a bit touch and go there in Tennessee. I've still got my eye on California, but Arizona and New Mexico have been interesting. There's something peaceful here, like that time of night at home in the spring and summer, when the days get long and it seems like it's twilite forever. It's like that all the time, here. I know you understand what I mean. When I get to California I'm going to have my picture taken standing on some big cliff, with the ocean behind me. I'll send one to you. I miss you a lot, and I hope you're not mad at me. When I land someplace for good, I'll send an address. With much love, always, Corinna I folded the letter carefully, sliding it into its envelope. I could just see her trucking along in the Bug, nursing it through radiator problems and its popping muffler, with California in her sights. I was still wearing her bracelets: They were the one thing I'd had on Fool's night that I wanted to keep, and I never took them off, not even in the shower. Whenever I missed her, all I had to do was lift my hand and listen as they fell. Cass's letter was harder. I didn't open it up that day, or the next. It sat on my desk, all by itself, and when I was alone in the room I made my bed over and over again, or straightened my sock drawer, glancing at it every few seconds. It was the first thing I saw when I walked into the room, and more than once I almost just ripped it into pieces. “What are you afraid of?” Dr. Marshall asked me as I chewed Jolly Ranchers and glowered out the window. “What do you think she'll say?”
“I don't know,” I said, and this was the truth. “Probably the same thing everyone's said: That what happened to me was somehow her fault, that she feels responsible.”
“Would that be bad?”
I grabbed another Rancher, ripping off the plastic wrapper. “Yes. Because I'm tired of that. Everyone can stop feeling guilty now, okay? It's not helping me.” Dr. Marshall considered this, studying her hands.
“But what bugs me most,” I added, “is what she's probably thinking.”
“Which is ...” Dr. Marshall said, sticking her pen behind her ear, “... what?” I pulled my knees up to my chestdefensive stance, as they called it in group. “It's just that I've always been the weaker one, the less talented. The perennial second-?place also-?ran. The more likely to screw up. And now, with this, I've, like, totally proved it. To her, and to everyone.”
“Caitlin,” she said, taking her own Rancher out of the bowl and laying it on the arm of her chair, “we've discussed quite a bit that being a victim does not make you weak.”
“I know,” I said. This, too, though, was hard to learn. “And from what you've told me about your sister, she doesn't sound like the kind of person who would judge you that way.”
“Of course not,” I snapped. “She doesn't judge anyone. She doesn't do anything wrong. She's perfect in every way.” Dr. Marshall raised her eyebrows, then picked up the Rancher on her chair and unwrapped it, not saying anything. The crinkling of plastic seemed to go on forever, with neither of us talking. “Perfect people,” she finally said, “live in picket-?fenced houses with golden retrievers and beautiful children. They always smell like fresh flowers and never step in dog doo, or bounce checks, or cry.” I rolled my eyes at her, cracking my Rancher in my mouth. “They also,” she went on, “don't run away with no explanation. They don't leave their families with questions that aren't answered, and make their parents worry, and leave their younger sister to try and hold everything together.” I swallowed, hard, and looked out the window again. “Your sister's not perfect, Caitlin. In fact, I'm willing to bet that if you take time to think about it, you might find you have more in common right now than you ever thought possible.”