"I want to hear you sing," said Julian.
Caitlynn looked up. They were lying together on the couch in Julian's living room, still somewhat post-coital from their lovemaking on the roof of the 7-11. After locking the store up, Julian had driven home, leading Caitlynn in her own car. Neither one of them had said a word about her coming home with him, but it had still been by mutual assent. The room was dark. They were still waiting for the power to come back on.
Until a moment ago, they'd been discussing the particulars of Caitlynn moving in here. At first, Julian had tried to keep it businesslike, but Caitlynn had wriggled out of her pants, complaining of the heat and cuddled up on the couch with him. She knew what effect her body had on Julian and had for some time. She knew what she was--a beautiful girl with a good voice and few other advantages. If she didn't want to wind up a middle-aged hausfrau in stretch pants, she would have to get out of this town. And, that meant leveraging her assets for all they were worth.
"You're changing the subject," she said.
"Not at all," said Julian. "I like you a lot, Caitlynn. But, I told you. I'm getting out of this town. If you tell me you want to be a singer, I need to know if you can sing. If you can't, then you moving in here probably isn't a good idea."
"That's a lot of pressure," said Caitlynn.
Julian sat up a little bit straighter, breaking most of the physical contact with her, "If you can't take it, how would you handle the music business?"
Caitlynn bit back an annoyed response. After months of trying to chase Julian until he caught her, she'd finally dragged him ... well, not exactly into bed, but had her way with him. She'd hoped that the honeymoon period would last at least long enough for her to get out of her parents' house and into a better situation here.
It took only a moment for the annoyance to pass. She'd chosen Julian because he seemed to want to get out of this town as much as she did. Everyone her age talked about getting out, but it had become increasingly clear to her that they were never going to. Their parents had talked the same way and their parents' parents. They all still lived here, fighting over the few jobs to be had in town or commuting to Middleburgh or even as far as Pittsburgh to work low-level jobs in offices and department stores. Or, they made babies for the men who did. Julian, on the other hand, was serious about getting out. He'd made real progress towards that end, saving money and making plans. He wasn't going to let anything stop him. Caitlynn would have ultimately lost faith in him if he'd been willing to sacrifice any of that for her.
In the seconds Caitlynn was making this evaluation, she was saved from having to respond immediately by the air conditioner roaring to life. Julian rose quickly, turned it off, and turned on a light.
"Ah, good," said Caitlynn. "I was hoping that I wasn't going to have to sing in the dark."
"I didn't mean you had to sing now," said Julian.
"Now is fine," said Caitlynn a little bit more defiantly than she meant. "I'm not afraid to sing."
"All right," said Julian. "Come in the other room and I'll give you a bit of accompaniment."
He led her down the hall and into another room. Unlike the living room, every wall wasn't stuffed with books here. It was stuffed with computers and electronic equipment on three walls and musical instruments on the fourth.
Julian waved his arms, "This is where the magic happens."
"What magic?" asked Caitlynn.
"I'm not sure," said Julian. "Every rapper that's ever been on MTV's Cribs says that when they show off their bedroom, though. My bedroom is mostly for sleeping these days. So, this is where the magic happens."
Caitlynn stroked the neck of a black-bodied electric guitar, "Do you play?"
Julian shrugged, "Not much. It's just for composition--for game music." He indicated a keyboard, "I can't compose on that monstrosity, but it does MIDI like nothing else out there."
"So, you're not really a synth guy?" Caitlynn asked.
"No," said Julian. "I'm not really a music guy. I only picked it up so that I could compose soundtrack for the eternal albatross."
"Is that a movie?"
Julian shook his head, "It's what I call this game I've been writing for the last six years. When I was fourteen, I had this grand plan that I was going to write a game all by myself, release it to the world, and be scooped up by one of the big houses as the genius I so clearly was."
Caitlynn kept her face neutral, "Why didn't you finish it?"
"Ten years ago, it was possible for a single person to write a video game. Now, it's just too much to keep up with. Machines and technologies are advancing every single day. By the time you finished a game, it would already look dated. Hell, by the time you finish playing a game these days, it looks dated. So, I keep working. But, I don't expect to ever finish it."
"Have you ever thought about getting help?"
"Sure. But, there are a million such projects out there and none of them ever finish. People think they want to work on a game, but nobody really wants to do the work unless they're compensated. I've had more than a dozen 'collaborators' over time. They all faded away. So, I'm going the education track."
"You started programming at fourteen?"
Julian shook his head, "Earlier than that. I started working on the albatross at fourteen."
"Damn," said Caitlynn. The respect was obvious in her voice.
"Did you know you wanted to be a singer at fourteen?"
"Well, yeah," said Caitlynn. "But, I wanted to be Britney Spears. And, I wasn't really doing anything about it."
"You don't want to be Britney Spears now?"
Caitlynn shook her head, "I want to be Caitlynn."
That elicited a smile from Julian, who picked up his guitar and plugged it in, "So, are you ready to sing for me, Caitlynn?"
Caitlynn smiled. If she was going to be tested, she couldn't have asked for a test she was more prepared for, "Do you think you can coax 'I Need A Man to Love' out of that thing?"
"Janis Joplin?" asked Julian, finding the chords. "Those are some tough shoes to fill."
"I'm not going to try," said Caitlynn. "I don't want to be Janis any more than I want to be Britney."
"All right," said Julian. His hands danced across the strings going into the intro of the song. His face was tight with concentration.
Caitlynn bit her lip. Whatever Julian's protestations to the contrary, he could play. She was taken aback. Not that long ago, after hitting a low point in her life, she'd come up with a litany of things she wasn't going to do anymore. She'd even written it down. The very last point, written in capital letters, heavily underlined, and followed by several exclamation points had read, "NO MORE MUSICIANS!!!"
Taking a deep breath, she fought down the panic. Playing an instrument didn't make a man a bad prospect. Julian clearly didn't think of himself as a musician or, as he had put it, "a music guy."
Caitlynn came in on her cue. She sang slower than Janis had, forcing Julian to change tempo, which he did smoothly. She could have done a dead-on impression of Joplin's whisky-ravaged growl, but had always liked singing this one like she was Edith Piaf. Closing her eyes, she could pretend she was in a smoky bistro in turn-of-the-century Paris, not an overstuffed computer room.
She didn't keep her eyes closed. Instead, she watched Julian for reaction. It was much too soon to bring up the subject of love, but singing about it gave her a degree of plausible deniability. As intent as he was on the guitar, she didn't have to worry about making eye contact at the wrong moment.
Depending on how a person interpreted the lyrics, it could be an anthem to codependence or a plea for understanding. Caitlynn didn't play it for either. She knew what she wanted out of a relationship, but it was too soon to be sure this was the right relationship to get it from. When she'd finally thought about what she really wanted, Julian had seemed like the best, possibly the only prospect. But, she'd seen guys do an abrupt one-eighty more than once after they got her into bed.
By the second chorus, Julian seemed comfortable enough with the guitar to play and sing backing vocals as well. Caitlynn shivered. He either had beautiful vocal control and a good ear for counterpoint or his voice matched this particular song and style remarkably well.
"Are you drunk?" Amanda asked.
"I think I'm halfway between drunk and hung over," admitted Caitlynn. "Amanda, I really fucked up. Can you come pick me up?"
There was a long pause before Amanda answered, but she said, "Sure. It'll take me a few minutes to get dressed. But, you owe me big, girl. Where are you?"
"Scott Andresson's house," said Caitlynn.
"I don't know him," said Amanda. "Where does he live?"
"Fuck," said Caitlynn, panic rising in her chest. "I have no idea."
"All right," said Amanda. "Don't panic. Are you on your cell phone?"
"Yeah," said Caitlynn.
"So, go outside and find some street signs. He doesn't live in the pines, does he?"
"I don't know," said Caitlynn. "I don't remember the ride over very well. Listen, I'll call you right back. I need a few minutes to get dressed too."
"Shit," said Amanda. "You didn't."
"I did," said Caitlynn. "I told you I fucked up, all right."
"All right. We'll deal with it in the morning."
"Thanks, Mana. I'll call you back."
Caitlynn gathered up her clothes and dressed as quietly as she could. In hindsight, she could have stomped around shouting, "I'm getting dressed and leaving" to the same effect. She was alone in the house with Scott and Andy. Both were dead drunk and sound asleep. Scott was snoring on the bed, drool running down the side of his face. She didn't know where Andy had wandered off to after having his way with her, nor did she care much. She just wanted to get out.
Despite being early spring, it was near freezing outside. Caitlynn's breath condensed into a cloud as she trotted away from Scott's house. As it turned out, he did live in the pines, the most remote part of town, but only on the edge. It was only a ten-minute hike to the main highway. Unfortunately, Caitlynn had worn only a light jacket that looked good with her strappy, white dress.
Her stomach rebelled against the abrupt change in temperature and she barely made it to the treeline before falling to her knees and throwing up everything she'd eaten or drunk ever apparently. Even as she was heaving, she was trying not to laugh at herself. Why had she raced off the property? It would serve Scott and Andy right to walk out into a puddle of puke in the morning. But, she knew why. She wanted no sign of her passing there at all. She wanted to will this night to have never happened.
She called Amanda back and arranged rendez-vous at the main highway. When she finally got there, she climbed gratefully into Amanda's mother's minivan, shivering in the heat. Her stomach started to protest again.
They were nearly to Amanda's house when she said, "You have puke in your hair."
"I'm sorry," said Caitlynn.
"Are you crying?"
Caitlynn nodded, "Just a little. This has been a rough night."
Something in the tone of Amanda's voice made Caitlynn look at herself. She'd managed to ruin her dress while throwing up and shred her stockings at the same time. One knee was cut and red with mostly-dried blood. She gave an abrupt laugh that turned into a sob.
"Cait, what happened tonight?"
"I was at the spring fling," said Caitlynn. "I got in a fight with Brian, drank too much, smoked too much, took some pills..."
Caitlynn shrugged, "Lysinda said, but I forget. Anyway, I ended up making out with Scott Andresson. We got a ride to his house from his friend Andy. I ... I fucked both of them. God, Brian is going to kill me."
"Brian? You're worried about Brian?" Amanda sounded angry, "Jesus Christ, Cait. That's the least of your fucking worries. At this rate, you'll be dead in a few years anyway."
Caitlynn burst into tears. Amanda's words matched her own self-recriminations far too closely for comfort. Amanda drove without speaking to her. In fact, she didn't talk at all as she helped Caitlynn strip down and clean up.
Lying in Amanda's bed, wrapped in her terrycloth robe, Caitlynn had poured her heart out. Amanda, apparently sensing that very little was needed, offered almost no advice, but listened well.
Caitlynn woke up with a cold and muscle aches. Amanda, a pre-med student and truer friend than she'd ever had, watched her, doctored her, and kept her from going insane.
When Brian found out where she was, he called, furious. Scott and Andy had wasted no time in telling everyone what had happened. Caitlynn had tried to be calm and talk to him, but after hearing the word "whore" one time too many, she'd quietly hung up the phone and let Amanda screen his calls until he gave up.
When she finished the song, Julian was watching her thoughtfully, his fingers absentmindedly strumming the strings of his guitar. Caitlynn waited for him to speak.
"When do you want to move your stuff in?"
Caitlynn felt a grin grow on her face. She wanted to wrap her arms around his neck and kiss him, but restrained herself.
"How much is the rent?" she asked.
Julian looked uncomfortable, "My last roommate paid three-fifty a month. But, I need to make something clear. I don't pay rent here. This was my grandfather's house. He left it to my father and uncle. They weren't able to sell it."
"So, you own this place?"
Julian shook his head, "No. My father and uncle do. I stay here and pay the taxes and upkeep. My cousin Scarlett also stays here sometimes, but she's a good kid. When she graduates high school in a few years, she'll be allowed to live here. I don't intend to be here by that time."
"She hard to get along with?"
"Not at all," said Julian. "Like I said, she's a good kid."
"Three fifty is fine," said Caitlynn.
"My plan was to rent out the room to someone I didn't know personally. The last roommate was a friend of mine. Once he figured out that I wasn't paying rent on the house, he got belligerent about the fact that I was charging him to stay here."
"I'm not the belligerent type," said Caitlynn.
"You would have your own room, of course. But, it still feels kind of weird, charging you rent if we're sleeping together."
Caitlynn shrugged, "I need a place to stay. I'm willing to pay for it. I've seen the price of places out there. I would be hard-pressed to find a place this nice for that price. Why don't you show me my room."
As she had hoped, the request short-circuited any further discussion, at least for now.
When Julian opened the door to what would be her room, Caitlynn laughed, "Julian, this is bigger than my room at home."
"Biggest room in the house," said Julian. "It used to be my grandparents' bedroom. Since I have the rest of the house for my stuff, I gave this room to Eddie so that he would have a place to keep his stuff that was entirely his. Do you like it?"
Caitlynn looked around. The room had a double bed, an antique chest of drawers, two empty bookshelves, two full-sized closets, and a full-sized mirror. Whatever previous residents had been there, the room showed no signs of their ever having been here.
"It's wonderful," she said. "When we get paid next Friday, I'll have enough for first, last, and deposit. When can I move in?"
"As soon as you like," said Julian. "This is the twenty-third, so you can start paying rent on the first. We can move your stuff in as soon as you like. I didn't ask Eddie for a deposit, so I won't ask you for one either. Just try to keep the wild parties to a minimum."