by Powell Burke
Katelyn found the state finals trophy wedged between the wall and the back of the vanity. She'd knocked the box cutter back there, reached to catch it, and there was the trophy. She shook some dust off, blew on the ponytailed head of the gold-plated girl, rubbed her finger across the plaque.
She'd forgotten when she even noticed it was missing.
Katelyn had liked Coach Cabot a lot. They all had. She was young, fresh out of college with a degree in exercise science, a cheerleader herself as a girl. She was pretty and saw all the same movies they had and knew all the songs on the radio. She was a master texter: Katelyn had observed Cabot on her iPhone, kicked back in her office chair, index finger gliding across the screen as if she were fingerpainting.
Even though she never used it to her face, Katelyn sometimes liked to repeat Cabot's first name to herself while looking at her. Jessica. Jessica. Jessica.
But that was in the beginning. As the semester went on, things changed. Somehow they made it to finals, by the skin of their teeth, and showed poorly. The weak accolades were out of respect, for Hawkins High and its legacy of wins just a few years before Katelyn's time.
The trophy was a joke—a trinket, something you put in a child's goodie bag at a birthday party. Katelyn wondered if she hadn't done it herself—backhanded it behind the dresser one day.
She retrieved the box cutter, then carried the trophy to a black trash bag next to the bedroom door, stopped. She found her gym bag, hidden behind a wall of unsealed boxes, and slid the trophy in. She dropped the box cutter in behind it and slipped the bag's strap over her shoulder.
Downstairs, Katelyn's mother was standing at the kitchen island, putting electrical tape along the seams of a cardboard box. She was wearing jean shorts and a bandana over her hair. Katelyn couldn't remember the last time she'd seen her mother dressed so casually. But then she looked closer, and her mother had her full Nordstrom counter face on, which was oddly comforting.
Her mother finished with the box, wiped her brow with the back of her hand, and surveyed the piles of cutlery covering the granite countertops. Those counters—Katelyn liked to cherish the illusion that, as the living, breathing fruit of her mother's loins, she was the thing her mother loved most in the world. She knew, though, that it was really those counters.
The counters were a family joke: the perfect kitchen for the woman least likely to put on an oven mitt. The premade meals from Whole Foods sure look great on those counters, Katelyn's father used to say. The first time Katelyn heard him do it, her mother's laugh was genuine, and she swatted at her husband. The last time Katelyn remembered him saying it, it was automatic, preprogrammed, and her mother didn't even look up.
Her mother kept her head down now, too, watching Katelyn out of the corners of her eyes, tiny glances, again and again, like that high-strung border collie Katelyn adopted for an afternoon the summer she was five. Katelyn didn't return the looks. She went to the refrigerator, opened it—mustard, pitcher of filtered water, leftover Chinese food.
“I already moved the food over,” her mother said. “Sorry.”
Katelyn could feel the woman's eyes on her back. She shut the refrigerator door, then drifted over to where the kitchen table used to be, oval blond wood, older than her. She sat down on the cold tile, cross-legged, and watched her mother begin to pile copper pots into a box. She said, “Why didn't you just hire someone to do this?”
Her mother looked up. She chewed on her lower lip. “Money's a little tight right now.”
Katelyn looked down. She rubbed a small light patch on the tile where one of the table's legs must have stood, for at least ten years, probably more.
She waited for her mother to fill the silence. She wasn't going to be the first to give in.
Discipline, Gates would say. Winning is about discipline. She was older than Cabot, not nearly as pretty, and her body betrayed no hint of any youthful athleticism. But Katelyn had no doubt she'd been captain of her squad.
Let me tell you about discipline, Gates said. Her first name was Helen, which seemed to fit her, and Katelyn never spent any time repeating the name to herself. At nationals I came down wrong on my ankle. I knew immediately that I'd sprained it. I didn't lose a beat. My smile didn't budge. That was the year we took nationals.
But Katelyn's mother didn't seem to notice the silence. She looked tired.
Today? That was probably what her mother should be saying. You're going today? This funhouse mirror version of the perfect wife and mother, with her trim waist and three-figure blond hair. Who spent her stay-at-home life reading her highlighted classics from college, or whatever was topping the latest New York Times white lady reading list. Instead of, say, cooking, or attending PTA meetings, like the other moms. Who went on an endless series of girls' weekends with her old friends from the city, returning with a tan, and spicy perfumes in dark boxes for Katelyn.
Today of all days. The woman who just shook her head at Katelyn's five a.m. alarms during the week to get to morning practice, who told Katelyn there were fresh bagels, as if Katelyn had knowingly consumed a carb in years. That was what she was supposed to say.
Katelyn stood up. She could see her mother's body tense, but Katelyn walked out.
It was overcast and there was an unseasonably chilly wind blowing through the neighborhood, It whipped Katelyn's ponytail around, making the shoulders of her slick track suit whistle as she stepped around the U-Haul blocking most of the driveway.
There he was, Mr. Fitzpatrick (Neil), in jogging shorts and a threadbare Duke University t-shirt, handsome in the square-jawed way of TV dads, tightening the tie on a bag of garbage as he stepped out onto the front porch. He spotted Katelyn, froze, and she turned her body to face him head-on, back straight, chin up, a muscle-memory posture from years of gymnastics and cheerleading.
It's about control, Gates told them. Control in all things. Never faltering. Perfect. Hard and clear and perfect as a diamond. No one dared tell Gates what they'd learned in science, about the flaws at the center of diamonds. In Gates's world, diamonds were capable of perfection. And so it would be in their worlds, as well.
Fitzpatrick's lips tightened in acknowledgment, then he turned his face away as he walked the bag to the curb. Katelyn knew it was taking all his willpower not to jog.
Melissa Fitzpatrick's station wagon was in the driveway next to her husband's SUV, and all the trash bags at the curb weren't from Neil Fitzpatrick alone. Katelyn waited till he was climbing up the porch steps, hand out for the door, before she said, “So she didn't leave you.”
Fitzpatrick didn't look at her right away. The tendons in his jaw flexed rhythmically. Then he glanced at her–“No,” he said–and stepped back into the house, shutting the door behind him.
Katelyn stared at the front door, the curtained windows on either side, just for a few seconds, in case he was looking out at her. She could picture all the glass bottles that must be in the recycling bin—Fitzpatrick liked his Stella Artois, she recalled from all the barbeques and dinner parties. How easy it would be to smash a couple with a rock, set the bigger shards at convenient angles behind the wheels of his SUV. It wasn't much, but the thought of Fitzpatrick having to borrow his wife's station wagon to get to Sears for new tires made Katelyn smile.
She turned away from the house. If she jogged, she would probably still make it to practice on time, avoid Gates's laps. But she didn't jog.
A bird crossed the horizon, from the trees lining one side of the highway to those on the other, visible for just a moment before it was gone.
Katelyn always answered, to that superpower question, that she'd like to fly. She used to do it in her dreams all the time. She remembered doing somersaults in the air above her bed, pushing off the walls with her feet, floating out into the hall. It was always fun, never scary, and she never wanted the dreams to end. She missed those dreams.
The bird circled back, swooping lower now, and Katelyn caught a glimpse of it's outline against the sky, mottled brown and gray feathers fanning out. It was that falcon that everyone was seeing around the neighborhood. The one Mrs. Baker said killed her orange tabby. Katelyn had seen the falcon before, standing out in the yard, rotating her neck to track it as the bird traced languid arcs in the sky overhead. It was hypnotic.
She wondered if falcons ever went into trances, circling like that, the same path over and over. Like at practice, when Gates had them repeat the same moves over and over, yelling Again! Again! Again!, switching to her blaring whistle when her voice got tired. Even when Katelyn was working hard, if she did the same movements enough times, eventually her brain would go into suspended animation, and she wasn't even really there anymore.
Gates had a knack for spotting it just as it started. She never called Katelyn out the way she did the other girls, but later, when practice was over and they were all trekking to the locker room, Gates would sidle up beside her and hiss, Focus.
The falcon veered suddenly off course, dipping sharply into the trees, and a moment later it was up again, something half its size clutched in its talons. A squirrel? Bunny? And then the falcon was off, a straight line into the horizon, taking its prize wherever falcons took such things.
Even if the neighborhood falcon did get Mrs. Baker's tabby, that cat was no sweetheart itself. One spring, years ago, Katelyn caught the cat with his rear poking out of one of the big bush that used to grow around the family's mailbox, rustling around inside. Katelyn was drawn over by a high-pitched noise, faint but insistent. The cat was so focused it didn't even notice Katelyn until she was right there. When the cat noticed, and looked at her, there was a baby bird, shriveled and pink and the size of a thimble, held between the cat's fangs. Katelyn remembered that she screamed, and the cat took off into Mrs. Baker's yard.
When her heart stopped beating, she bent down, parted the bushes, and found the remains of a bird's nest scattered about the interior of the bush. There were the broken remains of robin's eggs still in the nest, but no birds.
Those were nearby, two of them, as pink and tiny as their sibling, a few inches from the nest. Katelyn wasn't sure if they'd landed there or if the cat dragged them out. In any case, they'd died there: The soil within the bush was dark with bird blood.
At least the falcon killed to survive. Mrs. Baker's well-fed cat was just playing with dolls.
When Katelyn reached the school, she walked past it, following the sidewalk another half-mile, to the park. How long was it since she'd been here? She remembered a middle-school double date—Mark something, the new boy at school who was gone again within the year; and Seth Rowland, who she'd hook up with a few years later at some lame party; and Rebecca, who was probably at practice right now, checking her bejeweled cell phone to see if Katelyn had texted her as Gates's last-chance whistle trilled.
Yes, that must have been the last time–Katelyn's first real kiss, on the same swing set she swung on in her earliest memories.
She sat on those swings again. She didn't remember them being quite so small, not even just a couple years ago. The chains creaked when she moved.
She reached into the gym bag hanging from her shoulder, took out the box cutter. It clicked as the blade advanced out of the plastic sheath. There were some brown specks on the blade, just a few. She knew it shouldn't gross her out, considering, but it did. She licked her thumb, rubbed at the specks until the blade was clean.
Across the park, a guy sat on a picnic table, his feet on the bench, smoking a cigarette. He looked away when Katelyn focused on him, took another drag. Khakis, a blue polo shirt, proportional height and weight.
She looked at him, but he didn't look at her. She looked, but she wasn't thinking about him. She was thinking about her father. She was thinking back to middle school, when Dawn Emerson had made captain of their school's little proto-squad. That night Karelyn had told her parents she wasn't hungry. She'd gone out into the side yard, sat with her back against the side of the house, between the garbage and the recycling, and drawn her knees up to her chest.
Her father found her out there, and he knew what had happened, she didn't need to say anything. He put a hand on her knee and said, Kite—he used to call her that all the time, when Katelyn was much smaller, and it surprised her to hear it—People tell kids a lot of things, and they think they're doing it to protect them. But I believe in preparation, not protection. And she nodded, because she knew that. It was why she never had a curfew or a bedtime or been made to eat her peas. Because when you're an adult you make those decisions yourself, and children are just adults-in-training, not some alien species that would turn to goo if you weren't careful.
You lost today, Kite, her father said. Her father the jock, the former football star, the one who had her in gymnastics and cheerleading when she could barely walk. There's just no two ways about it. You had a goal and you didn't meet it. You failed. That's okay. Once. You take what happened and you figure out what went wrong and what you need to do to fix it for next time, and then you do it. Or, then it's not okay.
Where had that come from?
It must have been the guy's khakis.
A few minutes passed, with Katelyn looking at the guy across the park, and him not looking at her. She retracted the box cutter blade and put it back in her gym bag. She rose, walked to the water fountain at the edge of the playground, and turned her back to the guy as she bent to take a drink. He was older, but he had one of those faces where you couldn't tell where he fell between twenty-five and forty. He was okay-looking in a side-parted hair, good-citizen sort of way. The cigarette seemed like something he did to make himself seem more interesting, more dangerous. But who was here to see it?
She turned around and wiped her mouth. He was looking at her now, and he gave her a curt nod before looking away again. He was only a few yards away, and she barely had to raise her voice to call, “Hey.”
The guy turned back quick, eyebrows raised, a too-hard play at forgetting she was even there, this thirsty girl with wetness still on her lips. His face was pinkening before Katelyn's eyes, expanding from the apples of his cheeks out. His ears looked sunburned, and the red was creeping down his throat to where the top of his shirt was unbuttoned, showing a few sparse sprigs of chest hair.
Her heart beat hard beneath her track suit top. But this was different than the basement of Jason Dwyer's house, with Seth Rowland. She'd been wet then. Even though, after, she decided she hadn't enjoyed it that much after all.
Katelyn walked over. “Do you have another one of those?” Pointed at his cigarette. Menthols. Gross.
The guy looked her up and down. “You eighteen?”
She pshawed, rolled her eyes. “Duh,” she said.
He did what she knew he would: He reached into the pocket of his khakis and pulled out his cigarettes and a lighter, tapped one out for her, lit it for her. She took a long drag like she was savoring it, tamping down the nausea, blew the smoke out the side of her mouth like the women in those old movies her mother liked. “Thanks,” she said.
The guy nodded, then looked off, as though focusing his attention on some ducks in a pond. But there was no pond in this park, no ducks.
Katelyn sat on the picnic table next to him—too close, the edge of her hip just touching the edge of his—and followed his gaze. She said, “What are we looking at?”
She hadn't thought it was possible for the guy to turn redder. “Oh,” he said. “You know. Just… looking.” And he did look, now, full-on for the first time, still burgundy but with a sort of defiance that reminded her of her younger cousins.
Katelyn said, “And? Do we see anything we like?” She took another drag.
The guy looked around, scanning the woods to one side, the empty parking lot to the other, glancing behind him at the tree-canopied walkway leading to another part of the park.
“What are you doing?” she said.
“Looking for the cameras,” he said. “Or the cops.” He narrowed his eyes at her. “Are you a cop?”
She laughed. It was genuine. “Do I look like a cop?”
“Far from it,” he said. “Kinda the problem.”
“Even in a boring little town like this, you got to hope the cops have better things to do than spy on… two strangers, getting acquainted in a public place.”
The guy dropped his cigarette onto the bench, ground it out with his shoe. They were black, but not dress shoes or loafers: sneakers, old and well-worn. “Getting acquainted,” he said. He turned his body toward Katelyn, and she had to fight not to turn her own a few degrees in the other direction. “All right,” he said. “Let's get acquainted.”
She forced herself to turn toward the guy, matching him shoulder for shoulder. She said, “Let's.”
They stared at each other, neither looking away. He wasn't red anymore.
Then the guy sighed. “You're wearing pink.”
Katelyn looked down. “Yes. I am.” She reached out and lay her hand on the crotch of his khakis. The fabric was all bunched up where his thighs were together, but straining tight where her hand was.
He inhaled loudly through his nose, and his eyes closed, just for a second. Then he was looking at her again, brows knitted, eyes unblinking.
She held his gaze as she unzipped him, pulled it out. His eyes widened, and his facial muscles contorted into something (what was it, some SAT word)… animalistic. As though he was about to pounce from his seat on top of her.
Maybe he was. This was literally the exact thing they warned you about.
They. Adults. The ones who knew how you behaved in the world.
Katelyn looked away, first down, then quickly up and out at the treeline. Spindly green branches, just starting to bud, reached up toward the matte gray sky, the wind stirring them to claw at it.
The guy's hand floated up from the picnic table, hovered toward her. Before she processed what was happening he was taking the bottom of her track jacket, causing it to rustle as he slowly lifted. But she was quicker than him, and she smoothed the front of her jacket with the flat of a hand, knocking his away as though by accident.
Not an inch of skin–not smooth and white, or scabbed red and black—was seen.
Less than a minute, and the guy grunted, tensed, gripped the edges of the picnic table with his hands. It was over.
He let out a sigh and relaxed, and Katelyn looked at her hand. She stumbled to her feet, almost losing her balance, and doubled at the waist. She caught herself before her right hand, the dirty one, could go to her mouth, and raised her left instead.
Diet soda and grapefruit and bile, and whatever else may have been inside her, hit the concrete below the guy's shoes. He grimaced and yanked his feet up onto the picnic table.
Just once, and then it was over. Katelyn felt better.
He was standing, stuffing himself back into his wet-front khakis. She wiped her mouth on her arm and watched.
He was younger than she'd initially thought, she saw now. No one's dad, most likely.
The guy turned and started to walk away, toward the empty parking lot. Katelyn gave him a few yards' lead, than trailed slowly after him. “You in college?” she said.
He barely glanced over his shoulder.
She said, “I'm bad with ages. I think everyone's basically my age unless they're, like, elderly.”
He guy went to a tree on the edge of the parking lot. There was a bike leaning against it, an adult-sized bike, but a Huffy, with the same styling as the ones they had in elementary school.
The guy swung a leg over the bike. Katelyn said, “You dress older than you are, I think.”
He looked at her now. There was fear in his eyes. She knew it was wrong that something fizzed pleasantly in her chest, in her head, when she saw it.
“I have to,” he said. “For work.”
The blue Polo… the khakis…
“You work at that pizza place in the mall,” she said. “In the food court.”
His face twitched. “It's a restaurant. It's not in the food court, it's off of the food court.”
Katelyn laughed. She didn't even do it to be mean.
But then the guy was so red—not red embarrassed, but red mad—and his anger gave permission to some dark, tentacled creature inside Katelyn to begin unfurling, filling her up, taking control, pulling the levers from the inside.
She said, “Did you go to Hawkins? I'm betting you graduated, what, four years ago? I'm betting the yearbooks are still in the library.” She cocked her head, moved her eyes from the guy's nose to his earlobes to his mouth–mental snapshots.
He was just holding the Huffy now, still posed as if about to throw a leg over. She could see the white tendons standing out on his hands where he was gripping it, squeezing.
She wondered if he was thinking how easy it would be to wrap those hands around her throat. Her throat with its delicate rose-gold chain and teddy bear charm.
She knew she could outrun him. He looked like the type who ate a lot of his lunches on-site during his break. And she—well, she was her father's daughter.
The moment passed. The guy's hands unclenched, his face lightened a few shades, and Katelyn felt her own muscles loosen.
He said, “I don't know what you want.”
She studied him. What was he? Some loser, maybe flunked out of community college, maybe never went, now living paycheck-to-paycheck, easing the everpresent feeling that his life was meaningless with booze, on the weekends with his coworkers, but also during the week, by himself, in a one-room apartment…
Who was he? No one. Not to her.
Katelyn pointed. “I want your bike.”
The guy didn't seem to understand at first. He looked down at the bike, frowned, looked back at her. “Why?”
She didn't respond, didn't blink, and his expression shifted from confusion to something else. He looked a little sick to his stomach, maybe, and his mouth opened and closed without saying anything.
He leaned the bike back against the tree. Took one, two steps away from it, watching her. She nodded, then approached the bike, and as she did, he stepped back further, his retreating steps matching her approaching ones. She pulled the bike away from the tree, leaned it from side to side, checking the tires, the frame. “I think I'll paint it pink,” she said. He just shook his head.
Katelyn threw her leg up over the frame, and the bike wobbled—it was a little too high for her. She balanced atop the bike on the tips of her toes, adjusted the gym bag so it lay flat against her back, and began to pedal, in a lazy little circle at first, gaining her balance, then wider, around the guy, once, twice, three times, as he turned around and around, watching her.
“You should go,” she said. “I think you have to get back to work. Don't want to be late. To the restaurant.”
He turned and trotted away, trot turning into a jog, across the park, disappearing down a walkway into a clump of trees.
She left the park. The road was empty, and she pedaled faster and faster down the straight smooth asphalt, until the wind was whistling in her ears and she could feel her ponytail streaming behind her like a condensation trail. She reached up and pulled the hair tie from her head, let her hair fan loose behind her, let the tie go into the wind. She pedaled faster still, and half expected, if she looked down, to see that her bike was levitating just above the ground.
Last spring, the one of the sad trinket trophy, they'd stopped at Bush Gardens on the way to state. Katelyn hadn't been there in years—the family used to go every summer, it seemed like, but the last time she could remember was when her father bought her that stupid stuffed eagle, now sealed away in a cardboard box.
There was one rollercoaster, taller than the rest and creakingly old, all weathered wood and railroad spikes. Even Kate the Kite, the one who suggested Bush Gardens in the first place, wasn't looking forward to it.
Somehow she and Cabot ended up next to each other in the same cart, and during the long, agonizing climb into the sky, Cabot looked at her and said, I'll keep my eyes open the whole time if you do. And she reached over and squeezed Katelyn's hand.
Before Katelyn had time to get embarrassed, they were going over the first drop, the worst part. Cabot (Jessica) raised her hands over her head, taking one of Katelyn's with her, and yelled, Whoo, and Katelyn put up her other arm and made the same sound, both their voices blending with the shrieks and cries of the other girls.
A few months later, when they'd all learned Cabot wouldn't be back in the fall, she held a locker room meeting, one of those cheesy take-a-knee pep talks that only happen in movies. But the girls stood–all except Katelyn, who sat on a bench and focused on a mildewed crack in the cinderblock behind Cabot's head.
Cabot was crying, not even trying to hide it, and she said, I want you to know that whatever happens going forward, you're all winners in my book. She said a lot of other stuff, too, and some of the other girls cried with her, and others, like Rebecca, looked at Katelyn, and then turned themselves to stone. At the end, Cabot kind of trailed off, and then she said, Well, and Katelyn could feel Cabot's eyes on her, the captain. But Katelyn wouldn't meet them, and then Cabot dismissed them.
When Gates had come in the fall, and asked Katelyn about the dead weight, Katelyn thought back to the previous spring, and named the girls she remembered crying with Cabot.
Katelyn wondered, if she asked Rebecca now, Did I make you do it, what Rebecca would say. Even though Katelyn had never said the words. She was sure of it.
In the end, it hadn't been Rebecca who said something, anyway. The rumors–or some warped version of one or more of them–had trickled down to the squad's canon fodder. The girls it made no difference for who their coach was. Younger and softer than Katelyn ever was.
She'd heard there was a sad little slumber party one weekend, where the stories grew and warped and reconstituted. The closed-door conferences started the following Monday at school, and by the end of the week they all knew Cabot wouldn't be back.
No one knew, still, what had been said–who'd told which authority figure what, exactly. It had something to do with drinking, Rebecca told Katelyn, and inappropriate extracurricular contact, and lustful stares in the locker room showers. That one hadn't even come from Katelyn, and they all knew it was bullshit, but what did it matter.
She'd named the slumber party girls to Gates, too, in the fall. Too weak-minded. Obvious chaff.
She wondered what her father would say if he knew how it had all gone down, with Cabot. That Kite took what happened and figured out what went wrong, what she needed to do to fix it for next time. And then did it.
Katelyn slowed just enough to allow her to reach around and unzip one corner of her gym bag, pull out the trophy. She cocked her arm back as much as she dared and let the trophy go, sailing it over the road and into the trees.
The thing about Gates: With her, when Katelyn got tossed into the air, hands held tight against her chest as she twirled horizontally above the other girls, she went as high as ever. Higher, even, than with Cabot. But it was different. Her heart pumped just as hard, just as fast, but she didn't get that warm, fuzzy feeling, the one that stayed with her when she came back down to earth, the one that made her feel like she was about to faint but in a good way.
About half a mile from her street, Katelyn dismounted. She let the bike fall into the ditch on the side of the highway and walked off.