Scenery whizzed by the window as Kate drove toward the city. She’d been a long time away, but college was on winter break now and she felt the lure of home. It was cold out, so she wore a pea coat over a soft autumn-colored plaid shirt and jeans, her chestnut brown hair cut short. As she absent-mindedly navigated through traffic, memories of past winters came unbidden to her. In spite of all the fighting and bickering and pointless disputes she’d had with her sister over the years, all she could truly remember were the late nights they had spent by the hearth, trying to co-write a novel over spiced cider – only to discover that it was impossible for both of them to agree on character names. Days when the snow came down so hard, the only light outside was the warm orange glow reflected from streetlamps down the block, and spending so much time in the snow that the dryer in the house was on a constant cycle, keeping everyone’s jeans dry.
She’d had a fight with Lizzie earlier this week. Kate had borrowed Lizzie’s car for a trip and out in the middle of the countryside, had been pulled over for speeding. The experience had tied knots in Kate’s stomach that were so twisted they were still working themselves out. She wanted to settle the ticket in the county where it was issued without her parents finding out, but that would mean she would need to extend her use of Lizzie’s car for another day. She had called Lizzie up, who was staying at home, and explained what had happened and asked for another day, but Lizzie was so upset she walked out of her room and exclaimed to their parents: “Katherine got a speeding ticket!”
The betrayal resonated deeply with Kate. Lizzie was someone she was supposed to trust, but Lizzie had utilized her knowledge of Kate’s secrets to take revenge in a moment of anger – this made Kate reflect on what other secrets she and Lizzie had between them.
Some things weren’t meant to be shared.
As quickly as the painted lines flew past her vision, scenarios played themselves out in Kate’s head. She could find a job and support herself; earn enough money to finish her degree. She had friends who lived up in the city; she could probably crash on their couches for a little while. They would understand. It would be difficult to find a job in this economy – practically everyone she knew had been unemployed at some point this year. Worst case, she could just join the military – they always need intelligent people, and she had always been athletic. The military is always hiring. What branch though? Why throw your life away just because your parents couldn’t stand the sight of you? She couldn’t join the Army then. Air Force? Navy? Best if she left it to decide later – cross those bridges when she came to them.
The thought of never seeing her parents again made her sick. Family was the most important thing in the Meyer household. They spent more time together than most families – even after the girls had gone to college, they always came back for winter and summer breaks. Even separated by mountain ranges, the Meyers came together for every birthday. In the summer, they met at the beach to celebrate Dad’s birthday. In the spring, they met in the middle of the state to celebrate Mom’s. Lizzie was a New Year’s baby, so they either went to see the fireworks at the Space Needle, or they tucked themselves away in a winter cabin for Christmas and stayed for a week. Kate’s birthday fell during the Oktoberfest festival; so, like any good German family, they’d meet up and celebrate Oktoberfest at a nearby festival nestled in the mountains and stuff themselves on bratwurst, schnitzel and mugs of thick dark beer that were larger than their heads.
Per tradition, her parents had invited Kate and Lizzie to a welcome-home dinner at the local steakhouse. Despite common sense, Dad insisted that steak was the most important meal of the day, and expressed it as his solemn duty to properly feed his “half-starved” daughters at least once a year. Usually, the welcome-home dinner was a joyous event where the Meyers would catch up with each other, share the recent events that simply can’t be expressed over the phone – and are much better expressed after a few glasses of wine. Today, it was a task that Kate had to pull through – something she would endure and hopefully, she would survive. The dinner presented a unique opportunity in that it was held in a public place where violent reactions would be suppressed, where angry outbursts would be discouraged; where Kate had her own car – a means of escape and safety, and in a moment’s notice, she could fly away from her beloved family never to see them again.
“Sometimes, some crimes go slipping through the cracks… but these two gumshoes…” Kate looked at her phone, it was her dad calling. She flipped the phone open with one hand and the song stopped. “Hey Dad.”
“Hey Kate, I’m just checking in. Six o’clock, right?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there. Lizzie’s coming too, right?” Kate did her best to keep her voice even.
“No, she had a final today, so she won’t be coming until tomorrow. Why, what’s up?”
“Nothing, just can’t wait to see you guys.” Will it be the last time?
“Me too! We’ll get a proper dinner in you – I know you don’t eat well at school.”
“I know we talked about this, I just think it’s important to eat w-”
“I love you.”
“I love you too, Kate. Are you sure everything’s alright?”
“Yeah, of course.” Of course not.
“Alright… we’ll see you in an hour or so.”
“Yeah, see you there. Bye.”
Kate closed the phone and slipped it back into her jeans pocket. Rain drops began to spot the windshield. Kate turned on the wipers. Soon the patter of the rain rose to a roar as giant drops hammered the windshield. It was impossible to see clearly between the rain covering the windshield and the wipers flying back and forth. Kate slowed and signaled to move into the outside lane. No sooner had she made the lane change, than the rain slowed to a constant drizzle. The annoyance spread on her face, wishing there was someone else in the car for her to vent her frustration at.
She glanced around the car and found Booboo sitting on top of her suitcase. Booboo would understand. She wrapped her arm backwards around the seat and groped blindly for the soft, worn fur that covered her favorite teddy bear. Soon her fingers found the familiar texture, grasped him lightly and pulled the floppy brown bear to the front of the car and set him on the dashboard. Booboo stared at her with a concerned face – the fabric around his eyes had been flattened and rubbed raw, giving him the appearance of sadness, but by the discoloration of his fur from years of Kate’s salty tears, it might have been genuine emotion that the bear expressed. Booboo had always been there.
“If I don’t tell them, Liz might shout it out in a moment of anger, just like she did last week!” Kate explained to the bear. He sat motionless. As if she perceived his answer, she continued, “They’ll find out eventually anyway, best if I just get it over with and on my own terms.” The car lurched and Booboo’s head slumped to the side. Kate took that as acquiescence. “You were never good at debate,” she proudly told the defeated stuffed animal. A wry smile spread across her lips.
“How…” Kate wondered aloud. How will she tell them? Does she lead up to it and couch it with explanation, or just get it right out and lay it on the table? Suddenly she realized how agonizing this could be to worry about all the ways to tell them, and was relieved as her exit from the freeway approached. No time to agonize over it now.
Kate pulled off the freeway, took a turn and drove a short distance – the restaurant appeared up ahead. She pulled into a parking space and stepped out of the car, then remembered Booboo and reached back into the car to return him to his seat in the back, locked and closed the door, pulled her coat tightly around herself and walked toward the restaurant. Her parents were seated by the window, obscured by the water running down the pane. Her mom was looking smart in black slacks and a warm sweater with pearl stud earrings and Dad was wearing his mainstay khaki slacks and pinstripe dress shirt. He was constantly glancing at the door, anticipating her arrival. He spotted her immediately when she entered and rose to greet her. One of the greeters offered to take her coat, but she declined. The wool would make for poor armor, but it was all she had. She walked toward the table.
Kate’s mother looked up when her father rose and noticed Kate approaching. The warmth and happiness on their faces seemed to shoot across the restaurant like rays of sunshine, blocking out the dreary wetness of the parking lot outside. Kate smiled despite herself, but the smile quickly faded when she realized she may never be graced by that warmth again. Her stomach tightened and she winced, but tried to keep herself steady. The table was octagonal, set into a corner of the restaurant, the high walls closing in the booth from the other tables. She hugged her parents and slid into the booth, across the table from them. The restaurant was quiet and warm. Good.
The welcome-home dinner seemed to fly past. First, the waiter took their drink orders and Kate’s mom talked about her day – complained a bit about a co-worker and how it’s just proper office etiquette to refill the printer paper-tray when you print the last page. Her dad commiserated that his boss never makes another pot of coffee when he takes the last cup. The drinks and appetizers came, soon the orders for entrees were taken; dinner was served, eaten, and before Kate realized it, the waiter was asking about desserts. She’d been waiting for a moment to interject during the entire meal, but the conversation was so banal, she couldn’t find a moment where it seemed natural to segue into destroying her life.
Her father looked around the table, took everyone’s silence as a “no” to the waiter’s question, and handed the waiter his credit card. Kate sat uncomfortably, realizing that she was running out of time. The opportunity to use the public space of the restaurant was quickly fading and her plan was falling to shambles. She looked down at the table and contemplated how to bring it up. Her lower lip slid between her teeth and she felt her mind racing. Adrenaline coursed through her veins and every muscle in her body tensed at once. She felt tears pushing at the edges of her eyes, her face puffing and her head pounding. Everything in her vision turned a shade of red. Kate’s hands pushed down into her lap and mindlessly grabbed at the napkin that had been carefully laid there, pulled it up and twisted it into knots – mirroring the state of her stomach. She felt like she was going to vomit. She felt like she had to run, now, get away and escape this horrible mistake. It felt like her legs were tearing away from her waist, like they were the only part of her that knew this was a bad idea.
Kate’s dad signed the receipt and set it in the middle of the table. He made a motion to slide out of the booth. “Well, everybody ready to go?” Now or never.
“No.” It was all she could manage. One hand went to her stomach and she slowly bent over, trying to keep her dinner down. She brought her other hand up and rested it on the table – an attempt to maintain some normal sense of composure, as if it were possible. The rain relentlessly hammered the window, the noise filling the void between Kate and her parents.
They looked up at her in surprise and immediately understood something was wrong.
“What’s up, honey?” her mom asked.
Kate stared down at the table, paralyzed, unable to answer.
“Kate?” Her dad reached across the table.
Just as his hand was alighting on her shoulder, Kate’s mouth moved.
Silence flooded the booth, it flowed throughout the restaurant – as though every sound in the world had suddenly gone out. Her father’s hand stopped mid-air and hovered near Kate’s shoulder. She knew it. This was it. This was the moment that everything ended. It would have to be the Navy. No one ever goes into combat in the Navy. They have showers, too. She always liked the ocean. She’ll travel the world and find a new family among the crew of a ship, people who accept her, people who understand, people who love her. In an instant, she lived out her days abroad, met a wonderful woman, settled down and started a life, a family – a family where love was paramount. Not like this family.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sensation of warmth, traveling from her shoulder throughout her body. It spread along her spine and ran down to her knees, filling her up. She jerked her head upward and looked across the table. Her father had laid his hand on her, his eyes the picture of love, and her mother was crying and smiling. Their mouths were moving, but she could not hear them.
Then the tears came, they burst from her eyes and ran down her face, soaking into her coat. This was her family.