The first piece of fiction I've posted here in what feels like, oh, a couple of months at least. I've written the second part but it's too long to post in one piece. It leans pretty heavily on a few sources (spot them if you can) but given the imminence of exams, my brain's probably not up to much. Here goes.
Cindy first insisted that he was the son of a Baptist minister and had spent his childhood travelling from state to state. Although we had no evidence to support this claim, there must have been something about it – maybe just the image of him pressed between fat bespectacled women in so many sweaty Southern churches – that rang true for us. No sooner were the words spoken than they became his unofficial history.
Caleb Fields was, as far as we could gather, sixteen years old when his family moved to Four Roses, making him two or three years older than us. His father was some kind of pastor, though whether a travelling Baptist one, we never could discern; his mother was vague and crinkled. Our first recorded viewing of the Fields family was late that March, when the pink cherry blossoms were breaking into early flower and their Chevrolet first parked itself in the driveway of the empty Mann house. He emerged from the car in tapered black jeans; dark-eyed and hollow-cheeked, almost girlishly slender.
We had never known love like it.
He appeared in school the following Monday. Because he was not in our classes, we had to glean what information we could from older siblings and babysitters: yes, he was quiet, they said, and he smiled to himself at moments that didn’t seem to be funny. Eventually, they started waving us off when we approached with questions. At the end of the week, we pooled our data among the floral wallpaper and oppressive heat of Rita Phelps’ living room.
“I just really want to know,” Cindy said, and we agreed that wanting to know was the most normal thing we could want, that it was an end unto itself, that the knowing was the thing we yearned for most, and that when we knew everything we would settle back into our respective lives with scarcely a thought for the Fields family. Yes, we said: it was the enigma we really loved.
The first week of April saw a heatwave sweep Four Roses. It slept in our classrooms, smudging our neat handwriting with sweat, trickling down our spines. It was the weather of dried grass, of tank tops and sticks of gum, of ice-cream cones that melted all the way to your fingers. Our mothers paused over their sinks to sigh, and wipe their foreheads with sudsy fingers and say it was inexplicable, but we knew how to explain it. It was the arrival of the Fields that was melting tar and wilting roses; it was Caleb littering the sidewalks with cherry blossom petals and waking us up at night with damp unknowing heat.
On Tuesday, Therese and Susan reported seeing him alone near the bleachers during lunch. We took to spending our lunchtimes from then on huddled on the dry grass, keeping a lookout. Within a week, we had watched him smoking on the baseball stands, saw the tips of his cigarettes flare briefly at his mouth; observed from a safe distance the small mirror he kept inside his locker, how he paused sometimes to smooth down his fringe; watched his hands flutter occasionally to the silver crucifix he wore around his neck. Every significant sighting was recorded. On Friday at lunchtime, our third vigil on the grass, we designated a small green notebook of Cindy’s for the purpose of recordkeeping.
It is due to this stenographic care that we can report when it was that we first heard Caleb’s voice. It was 13:34pm on Thursday the 28th of March, nearly a week later, while he was on his way back from the bleachers – at that sacred point when he passed right by us where we sat – when suddenly and without fair warning Cindy Dalton called out.
He turned around, only three or four feet away. His face was inscrutable behind Aviator sunglasses, framed by the tilted sun.
His accent was by all accounts unplaceable, but to us spoke of wide deserted plains, tall summer heat and night-time car journeys. The coolness of ice clinking in water. The stations of the cross.
She shaded her eyes with a hand and smiled. “Nice glasses.”
“You like them?” He took them off and inspected them briefly, then folded them and threw them to her. She caught them delicately, as if she expected it, grinning like a bad actor who anticipates the play. He had already turned around and was walking away, chewing on a stick of gum like he always did. We recorded the incident in silence.
That Saturday, we convened in Mona’s room to discuss the unguessable facts of Caleb’s childhood. Cindy remained wordless, perched on the window-seat and stroking the frames of his sunglasses in her lap. Finally, when cool evening began to gather around the street and we had moved on to other topics of conversation, she spoke.
“I wonder if he’s a virgin.”
In all our discussion of Caleb’s life, we had not yet touched the subject of girls, not even expressing our own wish – however formless, however unsettling – to taste his mouth on ours. Cindy, however, seemed unaware of her trespassing on hallowed territory. The question came to her as naturally as the unfathomable Aviators: sudden but somehow unsurprising, exhilarating and unthinkable at once. In our hesitation, we began to see him as a kind of Christ, holy and laminated, innocent both of every sin and of none, immaculately conceived by a Chevrolet and born between car doors on a lawn in Four Roses, already sixteen. We could not imagine that he had ever touched a girl; we could not believe that he hadn’t.
While we kindled our indignation at Cindy’s sacrilege, Caleb himself came out of his house across the street and got in the driver’s seat of his father’s Chevy. We fell silent at the window as he backed out of the driveway and down the street, craning to watch him disappear until our breath misted the glass so that we could not tell his tail-lights from the street-lamps way out across town.
“Probably some party somewhere,” Cindy said.
“But he doesn’t know anyone here,” Mona pointed out.
Cindy shrugged, then pulled her sleeve over her hand to clean the lenses of his glasses.
Less and less now did Cindy come to our houses after school or help us to fill in the green notebook. One day she wore coral-coloured lipstick to school. She was becoming bony and angelic-looking, with tousled blonde hair and cupid’s-bow lips. Only her presence with us at lunchtime was assured: every day she’d stretch out in the sun-yellowed grass and watch Caleb’s narrow figure on the bleachers with the rest of us. One Tuesday, sitting with her knees tucked up under her chin and Caleb’s Aviators on, she told us she had started smoking. We squawked with questions. She stole the cigarettes from her mother, she said, and smoked them in her wardrobe, breathing the smoke out into a coat that had gotten too small. Despite our shock, she seemed somewhat disinterested in telling us about it, and abruptly trailed off into silence.
When Caleb came back from the bleachers that day, he nodded at her as he walked toward us. “Nice shades.”
“Oh, you like them?” she said.
He laughed, standing in front of us with the sun behind him again. He looked down and – in a strange and somehow uncharacteristic gesture – kicked the grass at his feet. When no word from Cindy seemed forthcoming, he continued walking back into the school. She kept on staring out at the bleachers, as smooth and cryptic as marble.