It’s a terrible thing to live under a question mark. The lies and the truth keep getting tangled and twisted in my mind. That’s why I can’t stop examining every minute, every second, every breath of that last night, looking for some shadow or flaw that might reach out to drag Cassie back to this prison she fought so hard to escape.
On the night Cassie finally broke free from this hell hole, I sat up until the wee hours of the morning waiting for her to come home from Jimmy’s party—partly because she’d promised to stop by and tell me all about it, and partly because I was afraid Walt was going to come home in the middle of his shift and discover she’d snuck out again. I guess I thought staring at the light from her bedroom window would somehow get her back there safe and sound.
I was nursing a bottle of warm Tab Cola to stay awake, every sip like battery acid on my tongue. I remember the swish and swoop of cars on the old state road as my Mickey Mouse alarm clock ticked and clicked its way beyond midnight. I think I heard the strains of the “Star Spangled Banner” before the Mother Monster switched off our TV.
After an eternity of waiting and watching and listening, Cassie finally popped through my bedroom window a few minutes after 1:30 am with an oversized straw bag in one hand and a bottle of pink champagne in the other. That bottle was cold and wet against my spine when she threw her arms around me and spun us in a circle, but I didn’t mind. I was buzzing with relief to see her safe and so happy.
When she pointed outside and slipped back out my window, I followed without hesitation. Without question. Just like every other time she appeared.
After leaving my bedroom, we walked across the south porch roof and climbed down the old hollow pear tree that grew too close to the house, its branches all tangled up with the splintering wood trim. Once we were both on the ground, she pressed a finger to my lips and walked in exaggerated tip-toe steps past the row of dark bay windows on that side of the house. Those windows belong to the studio rooms where my Mother Monster teaches ballet, tap, and jazz to all the pretty little princesses in town, so there was no real danger of being seen or heard by anyone in the middle of the night. Cassie knew that. She was just being silly for my benefit, and I had to bite down hard on my lower lip to fight back the giggles.
When we reached the unlit alley that ran between our backyards, Cassie twirled a few steps away with both arms stretched wide to the glittering stars and declared, “Once I escape Nowhere, Ohio, I’ll figure out how to breathe the sky.”
There was a nearly full moon hanging over the trees and not a single cloud to hide the stars. Despite the heavenly lighting, my eyes were slow to adjust to the night and my footsteps were awkward and shuffling. Cassie continued to dance ahead until we left the streets and alleyways of our neighborhood, crossed the state road to the Catholic cemetery, and found our way to the grassy hill beyond the graves. As soon as I caught up, she wrapped her arms around my shoulders and planted a loud kiss on my forehead.
“It’s time, Erika. I’m leaving tonight!”
It was a struggle not to panic, but her eyes sparkled as she said, “Let’s celebrate!”
Cassie took a few hopping steps and then she was running up the shallow slope. I followed, working hard to ignore the terrible weight in my feet and my heart. When we reached the top to hug the lone poplar tree, she just kept giggling like a maniac while I tried to hide how puffy my breath sounded. Soon we were rolling down the hill and racing back up to roll again.
When she was finally tired of rolling and running, we both flopped down on the hillside near the poplar tree. She produced two Dixie cups from the depths of her straw bag and opened the pink bubbly. We sipped and giggled and talked about all the things we would do in Hollywood. The places we would visit. The movie stars we would date.
“What will you do when you first get there?” I asked, still a little breathless.
When Cassie rolled onto her stomach, it seemed like she was searching every inch of my face for something. It was so intense. What was she looking for? Bravery? Trust?
I’m glad it was so dark, because I’m sure my face was flaming red by the time she laughed and said, “The very first thing I’ll do is buy a gorgeous postcard with a palm tree on it and mail it off to you.”
“With nothing written on it except my name and address, right?”
Our secret signal.
“Right. No one will know who it came from, but you’ll know I’ve made it.” Her finger lightly tickled my shoulder. “Second thing I’m going to do is get one of those maps that show where all the movie stars live. Then I’ll go pick out the mansion I’m going to buy when I’m a movie star.”
“But how will you get there? Where will you stay until you’re famous?” I wanted to know more. I was hungry for details the way she was always so hungry for freedom.
“I’ll stay wherever I want, and no one will be able to tell me what to do or when to do it.”
“But you know what I mean Cassie,” I insisted. “How will you live?”
“Don’t you worry about that, Worry Bird. I’ve got everything worked out.”
“But, if I don’t know where to find you….” My voice wobbled at the terrible thought.
“You’ll always know where to find me,” she promised. Eyes locked on the horizon, her voice was pure calm certainty. “We’re a team. Soon you’ll come join me. You’ll write the movies I'll star in. We’ll be millionaires, and we’ll spend every weekend next to a pool drinking expensive champagne from real crystal glasses. We’ll own the world.”
That’s the part I keep replaying over and over in my mind. Whenever it feels like too much work just to breathe, I remember that promise and it makes breathing just a little bit easier.
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