Lights flashed. Colours. An arc of colours, splitting open the sky. They blinked. The whole night sky blinked.
No. She blinked. Caroline blinked, and the wave of colors vanished.
She rolled onto her side and vomited, alcohol and stomach bile stinging her throat, enflaming her nostrils. She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, and kept her face down; her body arced away from Henry. He hadn’t noticed when she’d stumbled to the ground, and looking at him again, she saw that he hadn’t noticed her being sick either.
Caroline pulled herself into a seated position, elbows across her knees, forehead on her arms. The pebbled prairie was hard against her thighs, scraggly grasses that brushed her skin. Her bare arms were warm against the cold sweat on her forehead, the darkness a relief from the carnival lights. The spinning slowed.
“What’s she doing down there? You too drunk to stand?”
It was the big kid, the one who’d given Caroline the liquor.
When she arrived at the fair, she met Henry at the ticket booth, but instead of going in, he led her away from the entrance, guiding her through a maze of cars to a truck where half a dozen other boys were waiting for them.
“My friends,” Henry had mumbled by way of an introduction. Friends?
The semi-circle opened, and Caroline saw what the boys were shielding. Perched on the bed of the truck, the biggest of the group was filling dusty soda bottles with alcohol. Nobody said much. They watched the sun cut its light through the splashing amber liquid. As each bottle was filled, it was passed around the circle and shoved deep into jean pockets. Caroline felt a line of sweat break across her hair line, equal parts heat and embarrassment. The boys gave her shifty glances, and she wondered what Henry had told them about her, if they’d expected her. She hadn’t expected them.
The boy in the truck bed tipped the last of the brown liquor back down his throat, then tossed it into an open hatch. He opened a bottle of clear liquid, and filled up one last, gritty Mountain Dew bottle. “Cupcake vodka,” he said, handing it to her. Jumping down from the truck, he laughed that it was “all she could handle.” One of the other boys whispered something about what Caroline could handle, and the joke flashed around the circle. Everyone laughed, even Henry, and Caroline flushed hot, looked away. Pretended the plains wind had drowned out the joke.
Alcohol was new to her, but so was Henry. All night, Caroline matched her pace to his, drinking from her soda bottle every time he did, choking on the vodka as it corroded her throat and burned sweet in her stomach.
Now she felt stupid, foolish. She didn’t know drunk, hadn’t known that this was drunk, that this is what it felt like. Another snicker shuddered around the group as, one by one, each looked down to see if she really was too drunk to stand. Caroline flushed the same hot red, and tried to ignore them, searching for Henry’s face instead. He still wasn’t looking at her, was keeping his face trained away from hers. She stared hard, willing him to notice her.
He didn’t. All Caroline saw was the reflected lights of the Ferris wheel cutting themselves across his averted eyes.
The reason Caroline was here, at the Cassia County Fair, two states away from her home, was Henry. It was a plan, months in the making, one that had required a brand of deceit and trickery that she’d never before employed.
Here’s how it had gone: The previous March, her father’s family went camping. While there, her cousin Josie, a college freshman on her first family trip since moving out, slipped her arm around Caroline’s waist, and called over their shoulders that she and Caroline were going fishing.
“There’s a group of boys down there,” Josie whispered, as soon as they were out of their family’s sight. She shimmied out of her smoke stained sweatshirt, a skintight tank top underneath.
Gooseflesh rippled down Josie’s arms, and Caroline stayed quiet.
Josie led Caroline to four boys, all in the latter half of their teenage years. They were fishing too, so Josie took one of the poles, and like a siren, she began to charm the boys. Three of the four fell under her spell. They moved like a many-headed monster trained to follow the same light. Caroline, hung back, as embarrassed by Josie’s boldness as she was her own timidity. When the fourth boy, unimpressed by Josie’s show, detached himself from the crowd and came over to her, she felt like her very organs blushed from the attention.
His name was Henry, and he was even quieter than her. As they tossed leaves into the river’s slipping current, his shyness eased Caroline of hers. She asked him questions, and as he slowly fed her answers, she felt the initial flattery blossom into her own brand of coquette. She learned that they were the same age, both high school seniors. Both smart, both only children. They lived in different states—she in Washington and he in Idaho. They’d both be going to college in the fall. He was the son of a potato farmer, skilled with the animals they kept, particularly apt with horses. He told her that his parents were strict, and he hadn’t had girlfriends before. Just before sunset, Caroline pressed a pen into Henry’s hand, and told him to write his mailing address on her arm.
Caroline wrote Henry the first letter. Whatever she’d felt when he chose her quiet over Josie, Caroline wanted more of that from him. Her friends told her that having a pen-pal boyfriend was the most romantic thing they’d ever heard, like Pride and Prejudice or Nora Roberts, and she believed them. When she described what Henry looked like—hazel eyes, cheekbones that left hollows in his cheeks, tell, muscled, masculine—they told her that she had all the luck.
In private, Caroline wondered if Henry’s letters were short, if she was imagining the subtext. Hers were long and confessional, one-sided versions of the conversations she imagined they’d have if they lived closer to each other. His were never more than two paragraphs, mostly about the animals he cared for. Occasionally he mentioned a friend from school, or a teacher, or how eager he was for college in the fall.
It was Josie’s idea for Caroline to meet up with him during the summer. She came to visit in June, and in between Josie’s non-stop stories about attending parties on frat row or waking up in bed with a member of the swim team, Caroline told Josie about the letter she and Henry had been exchanging. Josie’s eyes flashed wide, and when Caroline finished speaking, Josie leapt from her arm chair onto the couch where she kneeled down at Caroline’s feet.
“Oh my god, that’s soooo romantic. When are you going to see him next?”
Caroline laughed and pushed Josie off her, gratified by Josie’s rabid attention. “He lives on a farm in Idaho.”
“So what? You guys haven’t talk about meeting up?”
Caroline shrugged noncommittally.
“Where’s he going to college?”
“College of Southern Idaho.”
“Ohmygod.” Josie reared up. “That’s only an hour from your college.”
“It’s less than half an hour from where he lives now.”
Two months ago, Caroline had withdrawn her acceptance to the college in Oregon that she’d planned on attending, and accepted admission to the only school in Idaho she’d applied to—a school, she’d learned, an hour north of Henry’s school. Her parents had been confused, and maybe a little disappointed, when she’d changed her mind, but every time they tried to broach the subject with her, Caroline would shrug and repeated a memorized statistic about her new college. Eighty-six percent graduation rate. Classes under capped at 30 students. Ninety-six percent of professors published.
They didn’t know anything about Henry.
“So you guys are, like, boyfriend and girlfriend? Did you choose to go to school closer one another? Or did you already know where you wanted to go? ‘Cuz if you already knew, that would be, like, fate.”
Caroline frowned, rearranging herself on the couch to mask her squirming.
“I don’t really know. I mean—I haven’t seen him since March, and we haven’t, you know, called each other that or anything. At least not in our letters.” Caroline had let it slip a few times at school—her boyfriend in Idaho, Henry, her boyfriend who loved horses.
“You have to find out what you are, Caroline. No. You have to. Because, what if you’re boyfriend-girlfriend, and you don’t know it. Or,” Josie lowered her voice to a bedside whisper, “what if you’re not boyfriend-girlfriend, and you go to college thinking you’re taken, but you’re really not. That would be embarrassing.”
It only took Josie ten minutes to come up with a plan that would put Caroline and Henry back in the same place. All her life, Josie had been a sideshow act for Caroline, entertaining, seductive, but ultimately freakish in comparison to Caroline’s own reticence. But now, Caroline wanted a small part of her cousin’s daring. Maybe it was because every time she thought about what she’d do if she saw Henry again, what they’d do, Caroline found herself burning with the ineptitude of her own innocence.
Josie’s plan went like this: Caroline would apply for early move-in to her dormitory. Her college allowed for that in special circumstances. She’d lie to the college and tell them that her parents would be out of the country during move-in week, then she’d lie to her parents and tell that them that her new roommate was moving in early and didn’t want to be alone in the dorm. It wouldn’t matter that Caroline’s roommate wasn’t there when they arrived, because she’d tell her parents that they’d been given staggered move-in times. After her parents left, a friend of Josie’s would drive Caroline to Henry’s town. All Caroline needed to do was write Henry that she’d be near him that particular weekend, and then go along with whatever he suggested they do.
“But don’t be too eager!” Josie had warned, jabbing a finger at Caroline. “He has to want it more than you do.”
When they finished scheming, Josie asked to see the letters. Before she realized what she was doing, Caroline found herself lying, telling Josie that she hadn’t kept any of them. Later, Caroline decided that it was a good thing she’d lied. Josie was more discerning than her friends; if she read the letters, she might tell Caroline to call off the whole plan.
As soon as her college approved the early move-in request, Caroline wrote Henry. It took two separate letters, two separate references to how she’d be alone, lonely, near him, free for the weekend, before Henry offer a plan. He told her they could meet at the Cassia County Fair, at the entrance gates, and if she got a ride there, he might be able to drive her back later night.
Caroline only received one more letter from Henry that summer. He wrote to her about a horse with bone splints in her shin.
A hot wind cut across the prairie, sweeping the smell of fry oil and cow manure out into the night. Dust and sand scraped
Caroline’s skin, and she stood up, her legs lead and jelly all at once. The laughter died away. No one saw the way she swayed. The boys were moving slowly toward the midway. Where was Henry? All night, he’d kept far enough away to make her feel alone.
“Jake don’t mean it.” One of the boys detached from the group, and came back to Caroline. Backlit by the lights from the fair rides, the boy’s face was a shadow. He came so close she smell stale liquor and cigarettes on him.
“Jake don’t mean it. He’s thinks he’s being funny.”
Caroline didn’t know who Jake was. Was he the big one? This boy wasn’t Henry either. She looked around him, squinting at the retreating group. There were more boys than she remembered. Their outlines shifting, blurring.
“You never been drunk before?”
Clumsily, she shook her head, sending the lights dancing again. Why hadn’t Josie told her that this was what drunk was? What she’d expected to be sultry and loose, she found to be sweaty and thick.
The stale cigarette boy wrapped his arm around her, and moved her body towards a bench. Caroline felt the burden of his weight bear down on her arms, and through his tee-shirt, worn thin and ragged, his body breathed hot and moist.
Seated, Caroline put her elbows on her knees, and leaned over them. The spinning slowed continue to slow. She was starting to feel steady again.. The boy dropped his fingers onto her back. Began to trace rough fingertips along her spine. A soft, searching touch that pushed through the fabric of her shirt.
“Where’s Henry?” she mumbled.
The boy didn’t answer for a moment, but ran his finger down her vertebrae, riding each ridge with a surgical slowness.
“Henry says you two were together this spring.”
Caroline shrugged. Squeezed her eyes hard enough to erupt a rope of pain across the top of her eyelids, a jolt of energy. His hand dropped lower, fingers now dissecting the skin exposed between her shorts and tank top.
“Henry’s never really had a girl before, but he said you two fucked.”
Like a radio tuned to a new station, his words cut through the ocean of ambient noise that the vodka had put in her ears. He said you two fucked. She looked up to find Henry. The group was even farther away. Too far away to differentiate individual bodies from the combined shape they made against the light.
“We didn’t do that.” Her tongue was dry, the words sticking on it.
The boy eased her tank top further up her back, the elastic fabric shimmying past her belly button as well.
“He said you did. He said you were a freak.”
The tears that she’d been fighting off all night came hard and fast, stinging her worse than the vodka vomit.
“We didn’t. We didn’t…fuck.” The word was a rock forced into her mouth, bitter, lingering on her tongue. “Where’s Henry? I don’t want you to touch me. I want Henry.”
Caroline tried to stand up. His hand flattened hard against her back. She ducked underneath him, and his hand swung out for her. She stumbled backwards, just barely holding her balance. The boy on the bench sucked air through his teeth. She thought she heard him laugh.
“Henry!” she tried to run. The wind stole her voice, and scattered it into the vast, black west behind her. “Henry!”
One form in the group silhouette turned around. Detached itself from the huddle, and came towards her.
“Henry.” She was crying hard now, moving blindly towards the silhouette. Henry braced his body for hers, caught her from falling. She draped herself onto his outstretched arms, laundry left out on the line.
“Are you crying?”
The fuzzy noise in her ears was getting louder. She couldn’t get her thoughts to connect with words. The only thing rising up from the fog of vodka and tears was that this wasn’t supposed to be like this. Tonight wasn’t supposed to be like this.
“Yes, I’m—. You told him—,” she coughed on her tears and pointed over her shoulder at the boy from the bench. “You told him that we—.”
“Jake’s right,” the voice from the park bench cut Caroline off, the same lazy drawl. “Bitch too drunk.”
She looked up at Henry, trying to decipher his expression.
“He was touching me.,” she whispered.
He stared down hard at her, then looked over to the other boy. What had she told her friends about his looks—that he had high cheekbones? Hazel eyes? His eyes were brown, flatly brown. Even in the dark. And his cheeks were thick, almost flabby, almost round.
He said nothing to the bench boy; his face didn’t even ripple.
“I’m taking you home.” He pulled his arms out from underneath her armpits, letting her catch herself.
They walked back through the fairgrounds in silence. The thronging crowds from the afternoon had thinned; the park was nearly empty. The wind was picking up speed, howling through the vendor stands, most still lit up, even though they were empty. A grease-stained doughnut wrapper cartwheeled on the wind, and an empty beer bottle shimmied down the pavement. Caroline watched her feet, swallowed phlegm and tears in noisy gulps.
Even after they got into Henry’s car, he remained quiet, manoeuvring quickly through the grass parking lot and onto the road. Once they were outside the radius of fair lights, the highway emptied. Henry’s headlights crowded out the darkness, pitch black gathering heavy along the edges of his dusty beams.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Caroline mumbled, breaking their silence as the dashboard clock rolled over into the new day. “Why did you even invite me here?”
Caroline watched Henry’s silhouette shrug. “It sounded like you wanted me to.”
“Didn’t you want to too?”
“I liked writing to you this year.”
“Why did you tell your friends that we did it?” Caroline wasn’t listening to Henry, these questions were too hard, coming too fast.
“Those guys have always teased me about not having girlfriends.” They passed a sign for her college. “I don’t even know if I like girls.”
“Will we visit each other now that we’re going to college in the same state?”
“I don’t know if I like boys either. I don’t know what I like. I don’t know what I want.”
“We’ll only be an hour away from each other.”
“I told them we had sex, because it was just fucking easy. I didn’t think they’d ever meet you.”
“You led me on.”
“No I didn’t.”
Caroline didn’t answer.
The engine whined, and the wind threw itself hard against the car, clawing hard across the beaten plain. Caroline thought about Henry like he wasn’t there, like she was in her bedroom in Washington. She wondered if she wanted to see him again.
Henry turned onto her campus. Street lamps threw cones of orange light onto the sidewalks. Above their light, dark shadows swallowed the buildings. He parked in front of a plain, brick building, and for a second, Caroline didn’t know why he had stopped here.
It was her dormitory. She’d barely even looked at it when she arrived this afternoon. She put her hand on the door handle, wishing she didn’t have to get out.
“I’m actually going to school in Minnesota. I changed my mind a few months ago.”
Henry gripped the steering wheel, and stared out the windshield. Minnesota? He’d never even mentioned Minnesota.
Caroline stumbled out of the car. As soon as the door slammed shut, he backed out of the parking lot. He didn’t wait for her to get into the building. He didn’t even look back.
Caroline rubbed her fingers against the three new keys on her chain. All but one were bright and polished; that last one dingy with scratches from someone else’s use. The wind had turned cold, and gooseflesh rippled down her arms and legs. Her teeth began to chatter as she tried each key in the door knob. When she got inside, the harsh light from the ever-lit hallways stung her sore, tear-raw eyes.
The dorm hall was eerie, emptied of all its people. Caroline knew that resident advisors had already moved in, but there was no sign of them, nothing that made their presence known.
Her mind wandered to her parents.
Less than ten hours before, they’d said goodbye to her. Her mother kissing the top of her head with shining eyes, and her father holding her tighter, longer than he usually did. Caroline had rushed them back to their car, and as soon as they were inside of it, she’d gone back into the building. She hadn’t even waited to let them wave goodbye to her.
Caroline climbed the stairs slowly. She remembered her parent’s, their furious currents of love, made hot by the grief of goodbye. In her excitement to see Henry, she’d missed the moment; she’d pushed it away. By the time Caroline reached her unfamiliar dorm room, the hollow ache in her stomach had fallen away, collapsed into a sinkhole of pain.
Tomorrow, she’d burn Henry’s letters in a bathroom sink. She’d call her parents, and tell them bright lies about how much she loved her new college.
She’d think of a better story to tell her new roommate about why she’d moved in early. Something she could spin as funny and sexy. Laughably disastrous when Josie or her girlfriends back home asked about how it went with Henry.
Caroline laid down on her bare bed—her sheets were buried in one of the unpacked bags. The clammy plastic chilled her skin, and she began shivering again. She wondered what it would have been like if Henry had stayed. She imagined his body wrapped close into hers. She tried not to think about what he’d said in the car.
What would he tell people in Minnesota about her?
He wouldn’t tell anyone about her, Caroline realized just before she fell into a sleep snarled with blinking lights and leering boys. He wouldn’t have. She wasn’t part of his story. Not in the same way she’d made him part of hers.