A year and a half had passed since I had last seen her, and Caitlin still smelled the same. Since she was a teenager, she had always smelled like face powder and the subtlest hint of a flowery perfume, soft and pretty. At the age of 24, she smelled no different, and my eyes prickled with tears of joy to see the girl who was not only my oldest sister, but my most trusted friend.
Her husband Anthony embraced me with one arm for half a second, ever so affectionately, before grabbing my suitcase from me.
The walk from my terminal to the parking garage was two miles. Compared to the miniscule Bradley Airport in Connecticut from where I had departed, Atlanta’s airport was enormous. Everything was grey, and people were in a hurry. There were no people hugging each other goodbye, or speaking to each other, or even standing still. We were all running from point A to point B, oblivious to our surroundings.
“I need coffee,” I poked my older sister, craving my most serious vice. Our dad had woken me up at four in the morning for my 7:30 flight, even though we only lived half an hour from the airport. It didn’t help that my mother and I were arguing all night and I didn’t fall asleep until three in the morning. My body felt heavy and sluggish, and I could feel frustration physically building up inside of me, not sure it was from sleep deprivation, hunger, or the morning’s events.
We stopped at a small coffee stand that sat pathetically in the corner of a gigantic, grey carpeted corridor. I ordered my coffee black, and as soon as I tasted it I smacked my lips in displeasure. The coffee tasted sterile, as if it too was disinfected like the steel handrails that lined every wall.
Finally reaching Caitlin’s pristine white Jeep, I slid into the back seat, leaning my head against the window. We still had another two hours to drive before reaching the base. I was exhausted.
Caitlin, always the one to plan our day down to the minute, listed off what the rest of our day would be like: “First we’re stopping at some antique shops because I never get to go down this way but there are some really great places, you’ll love them. Oh! Wait, first we’ll grab a quick lunch, some sandwiches or something. I’m sure you’re hungry by now. Then we will go antiquing, and then once we get home I’m making enchiladas and tonight we’re gonna be scandalous and eat in front of the TV! I’m dying to see this new movie,” she rattled off the itinerary without taking a breath.
I sighed. Caitlin, ever since being married, had turned into a hermit. We used to have more fun than just going antiquing. Nonetheless, I grinned and told her what fun this would all be. Even though she had changed, we could still make the best of the week as we reintroduced ourselves.
Four hours later, complete with stops at four different antique stores where the owners grumbled at my sister for “just looking”, three sandwiches, two coffees, and a major migraine from travelling all day, we arrived on base. Anthony had been stationed here for almost two years since being promoted to drill sergeant in the army.
I had never been to a military base, and it was not at all what I had expected. It was very suburban, very linear, and very clean. My sister and brother in law lived in a white paneled duplex with black shutters and a small lawn and a two car garage. It was quaint and cute.
Caitlin led me through the garage and into her kitchen, where her four dogs were waiting. Two poodles and two schnauzers, all of them tiny, loud, and excitable, scurried around my legs, begging to be the one that I chose to pick up.
I pick favorites. Caitlin had one dog when she lived in Connecticut, and I spent a lot of time with him. When she moved to Georgia, she adopted three more because their stories made her so sad. Colton, the first dog and the only male of the group, drenched my face in slobber as he kissed me. I laughed hysterically as he whimpered and yelped, as happy to see me as I was to see him.
Caitlin rolled her eyes. “He’ll be your roommate for the week,” she scratched his head and he growled at her for not being me. I had spent a lot of time with Colton when he was a puppy and Caitlin was in school, so we had a special bond.
The three of us got to work making dinner, and retired to the upstairs TV room to watch a movie.
I smirked to myself as I looked around the room. Caitlin really was turning into a grandma. The room’s walls were covered with dozens of framed portraits that I was certain I had seen in my grandmother’s home before. Her decorative taste was identical to our Memaw’s , and she had craftwork materials neatly lined up next to her rocking recliner. Lately it appeared she had taken up felting, knitting, and embroidery.
I laid back on the suede couch and wondered whether Caitlin realized how much she had changed lately.
I woke up after dozing off halfway into the movie to hear my sister sniffling. I rolled over to look at her. Anthony had left, and Caitlin lay curled up on the sofa, wrapped in a blanket crying.
Sitting up, I coughed a little to get her attention. “You okay?” I asked, debating whether I should sit with her.
“I get so scared sometimes,” she cried. I hated her crying voice. There was nothing that upset me more than the way her voice turned into a squeak and I hated to think of her as helpless, but it’s how she sounded.
“What do you mean?”
“Sometimes I feel like I made a big mistake coming here,” she got up and shut the door so as not to awaken Anthony. As she did this, I thought of how my mother did the same thing as she and I argued, to keep my father from waking up.
“I feel like Mom some days,” she continued. “Being here feels like a trap and I don’t want to leave my bed some mornings. I have no friends here, no family here, and there are no jobs. When I do work, I never get to see Anthony. It’s so hard.”
I swallowed hard, a lump forming in my throat. I had come here for spring break because in the midst of my senior year, my mother and I were not getting along. It was worse than ever. My five siblings and I clung to each other as best friends, the only people who understood our family. It was hard though, because there was no escaping it. Every conversation we spoke, every dinner we had together, every long car ride led to discussing our parents, and here it was happening again. Caitlin and I both feared the depression that our mother suffered from and battled daily, and there was always the lingering “what if” running through our minds as to whether we would be subject to the same future.
I told Caitlin the story of how the past week had been with my mother. Her jaw dropped and she shook her head.
“I thought moving down here would be good for my relationship with her,” Caitlin sighed, her face pale and blotchy from the crying. “It’s even worse. She’s always on the phone, calling me to keep me involved. She’s stressful. Be careful, because once you’re in Vermont this fall, you’ll be involved long distance too in Mom’s drama, and it’s even worse from afar.”
Caitlin felt trapped here, I realized as I hugged her goodnight and made my way to the guest bedroom, Colton at my heels. She felt trapped, not so much by Georgia itself than by the fact that no matter where she was, she couldn’t escape from the stress of my family.
The sun pierced its light through the window early the next morning and I sat up in the white guest bedroom. Colton snored loudly and managed to take up half of the double bed with his ten pound body. I maneuvered myself to the bathroom to shower and dress. Twenty minutes later, I arrived downstairs to hear music playing softly in the garage. I had found out earlier the day before that Caitlin and Anthony had a little lounge set up in the garage. They moved an old couch, a rug, and a butterfly chair in there and sat to smoke cigarettes, listen to music, and get some of the summer air.
I poured my coffee into a mug and added in skim milk, the way Caitlin and I liked it best, and then joined Caitlin in the garage, where she sat smoking a Camel cigarette and sipping her coffee that was made identical to mine.
“There’s a kid here named Donovan who lives down the road,” she blew out the cigarette smoke as she spoke, the opaque breath twirling in the air with each syllable just before it disappeared. “He reminds me of Ian, probably the same age. But he gets picked on by this little shit next door and it makes me so mad.”
Caitlin was fourteen years older than our youngest brother Ian, and she moved out by the time he was two. I knew she always felt guilty for the fact that her relationship with him wasn’t as strong as the rest of our siblings’. She felt especially bad now, living so far away, and whenever she did visit she made sure to spoil him.
Donovan, as if on cue, began marching up the street towards the basketball hoop where the other kids were playing. He had a big, goofy grin on his face and he approached them ready to join the game.
“Who invited you, Donovan?” A lanky boy with his pants pulled up to his waist sneered.
Donovan still smiled. “I wanna play!”
The boy nodded his head and threw the ball at Donovan, which hit him in the gut. Donovan began to cry.
Caitlin was furious. She marched out onto her driveway and shrieked, “Who the hell do you think you are?!”
The kid rolled his eyes at her.
“Roll your eyes again, young man! I’m marching over to tell your mother what a little sh*t you are!” With that, she marched towards the neighbor’s house and knocked on the door. The boy grabbed the basketball and ran towards his house, as if to beat my sister to it.
Donovan waved at me. “Miss Caitlin is nice to me,” he scratched his belly. “All the other people are mean, but my mom says Miss Caitlin is good! Sometimes she even gives me a doughnut or an orange when I say hi.”
I smiled at Donovan and ran into the kitchen to grab a clementine. I tossed it to him when I came back out. “Miss Caitlin’s my sister!” I told him. “She is good, and you’re good too.”
Donovan dug his fingernails into his clementine. “I know,” he said, before turning to skip back down the road.
My older sister walked back from the neighbors’ house, still seething with anger. The boy’s mother had him by the ear and against the house as she shouted at the bully.
I smirked at Caitlin. “Donovan is like Ian.” I remembered the night before my flight, after arguing with my mother. Ian tiptoed up to my room and kissed my cheek before he went to bed. He was the only one besides my dad who told me to have a good trip. I closed my eyes and remembered getting home from work the night before I left…
I opened the door to our house, surprised to hear nothing. Our house was rarely silent. My sisters sat at the dining room table, headphones on and books in their hands. My father slept on the couch, and my mother’s bedroom door was shut–another rarity. My youngest brother sat on his bed, bedroom door open. I tapped my younger sister on the shoulder.
“What’s up?” I ask, gesturing towards our mother’s room.
Fiona, my fifteen-year-old sister shrugs. “She was just angry when she picked us up from school. You know how she is.”
You know how she is. It was a famous line in our home. I nodded, understanding. She probably got angry about the living room being cluttered and it set her off. Or she might have gotten upset that the weather was so humid today. Maybe it was the fact that I was leaving for the week. For two people who hardly got along, she sure did hate it when I left.
Noticing that it was nearly half past six and dinner hadn’t been started yet, I took up that task for myself and set my little sisters to do other chores.
The door opened up, and my mother shuffled out of her room. I could tell she had been crying, but avoided eye contact.
“Your father will drive you to the airport tomorrow,” she grumbled. I sighed. It was not unlike her to break her promises.
The rest of the night was filled with tension and heated argument. I couldn’t remember much else.
After finishing our coffee in silence, Caitlin and I packed the car for our hike. This mostly meant laying down towels for the dogs who would inevitably become filthy after trekking through the woods of Georgia.
“I’m probably going to drive Anthony’s car a lot more while he’s gone,” Caitlin said to herself as she spread a blanket over the back seat.
“Wait,” I insisted. “Where’s he going?”
Caitlin sighed. “He’s going to Louisiana for training. It’s five weeks and he leaves on Monday, right after Easter.”
Five weeks, and my older sister would be left alone here. I never knew what to say to make her feel better.
Anthony came out then and loaded the four dogs into the car with me.
One missed text message. I knew it was from my mother, but I dreaded to even look at it. I tossed the phone to Caitlin, who read it aloud as we finished drying the dogs after our hike.
“Good to know my daughter let me know when she landed and got there safely. Thanks a lot,” Caitlin recited.
I groaned. “I called Dad. I didn’t wanna talk to her.”
Caitlin rolled her eyes at me. “Whatever, we all know how she is.”
I spat on the dusty dirt to rid my mouth of the aftertaste from the gas station coffee that had seemed like a good idea an hour ago. Anthony slammed the doors shut on Caitlin’s Jeep, leaving the windows down and the radio on.
He trained his soldiers here. It was Easter Sunday, so the place was deserted. Caitlin, Anthony, and I didn’t feel like sitting around Fort Benning, so we decided to go exploring in the beautiful weather. I felt confident in exploring this place, Caitlin and Anthony had told me before we came here that they would never even bring my older brother Kyle here because he and my other siblings weren’t as brave as I was.
The training ground was a model of a Middle Eastern village that contained regular sized fake houses that came in different varieties of Easter Egg colors, a white, hollowed out mosque, and one huge navy blue apartment building complete with an empty elevator shaft.
Anthony led us over to a pistachio-colored house that had a steel ladder attached to it. Caitlin began climbing the rungs of the ladder that led up to the roof, and I followed suit. The metal burnt my hands from conducting the heat of the sun, so I climbed faster. Caitlin grasped my wrists when I reached the top. There was about two feet of space between the ladder and the building, so I jumped over the step to reach the landing.
Anthony was already inside the building waiting under the trapdoor of the roof. Caitlin and I took turns shimmying down through it while Anthony guided us safely to the floor.
My eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness and I coughed as my lungs were overcome with stale, musty air. The empty building was like a dark maze, with plenty of places to duck behind and tiny little peepholes through which to point a gun at the enemy.
The three of us climbed through trapdoor after trapdoor until we finally reached the front door. I don’t know why, but I felt adrenaline rush through me with exhilaration and a little bit of fear. There was a sense of urgency when we romped through the buildings. I suppose it was the seriousness of where we were.
I screamed when I opened the front door. A black figure was mounted on a wooden stake in front of me, cloak swaying gently against the dirt, causing a little brown cloud to burst up momentarily.
Anthony laughed at me. “The guys use these for shooting practice,” he explained. I didn’t find it very funny. I spit again, remembering how burnt my coffee was. Overdone.
Anthony asked me to explore the mosque with him. The door was locked, so this time I climbed through a window, pulling with me a heavy layer of cobwebs. The air was so thick I could hardly breathe inside of the dirty shell of a building.
I kicked aside some empty beer cans, probably left behind by some kids of the men who lived on base. My brother in law headed up to the loft and I followed him, eager to catch up.
Kneeling against the splintery floor, I brushed the dirt off of my hands and immediately began picking at my cuticles. There were some things I got nervous to talk with Anthony about, but I asked anyway. “Were you scared going overseas?”
His footsteps echoed as he paced the edge of the loft. “Nah. You don’t have time to be scared. You’ve got sh*t to do.”
“So, you were scared.”
We walked back down the loft, talking about the probability that Anthony would be deployed again within the next year, this time probably to Afghanistan. The smell of burnt, over brewed coffee was overwhelming as it mixed with the musty smell of the powdery dirt. Anthony and I both spit onto the ground to try to get rid of the bitter tastes in our mouths that didn’t have so much to do with the coffee anymore.
Caitlin sat on the grass outside, gazing at the watercolor sky.
Anthony nodded to her. “I think we’re ready to head back home. Let’s get Easter dinner started.”
Caitlin shrugged. “No more exploring?” she asked. I shook my head.
In the distance we heard a few gunshots and the faint, elated shouts of young men. Anthony opened up my car door.
“Happy Easter,” he half-smiled, before lighting up a Camel cigarette and climbing into the car himself.
Monday morning I woke up at six in the morning to a knocking on my door.I open it up to see Anthony, his luggage waiting by the stairs.
“Thanks for having me,” I say, blinking back tears.
We hug, for a whole three seconds. A record for us.
“Take care of her until you leave,” he nods his head towards Caitlin’s bedroom. I smile, and he walks down the stairs.
Back in my room there’s a text from my sister waiting. Come into my room, it said.
I open Caitlin’s door and tiptoe in. The sun was beginning to rise but the blinds were shut, sending cracks of lights and shadows splitting the room up into lines. I climbed into her bed where Caitlin laid down, crying.
We spent the next four hours in bed, silently staring at the ceiling with all of the four dogs at the foot of the bed.
As I was getting dressed, I noticed a book on the shelf titled Keep Calm and Carry On. It was just a book of quotes. I opened up to where the bookmark was:
Always be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
I thought of my sister, of my brother in law, of my mother, of how I unfairly judged all of them without thinking of anything but my own interest.
I pulled out my phone and dialed the number I’ve punched into my phone a thousand times before.
“Mom? It’s me. I’m sorry for everything that happened before we left….”
The resentment wasn’t worth it. Caitlin and I spent so much of our time frustrated with our mother when we knew she would never change. Letting go of our hurt and anger was hard but it was the only thing that would save us from her. And besides that, our mother had had her fair share of problems too.
After saying goodbye to my mother and making sure to tell her I loved her, I went downstairs and poured Caitlin a cup of coffee.
“We’ll have a good time before I leave,” I promised.
The car ride back to the airport was filled with laughter, gossip, and great music. I acquired my taste in music from the influences of my older siblings, so we never argued about what to listen to.
We each sipped lattes that we made from the machines at the gas station, but they were actually good.
We had two hours of waiting at the terminal before my flight. Anticipating the goodbye, Caitlin and I sat in silence. I took to people watching for the duration of the wait, observing families as they rushed about: a mother leading the pack with an infant strapped to her chest, followed by a young boy and girl wheeling Spider Man and Hello Kitty luggage, and a dad walking behind, hauling the rest of the luggage. A young man sat next to me, holding what looked like a ring case and tapping his foot. Caitlin sat on her phone, reading a newspaper app and playing with her hair. I felt a silly kind of guilt for having to leave her all by herself.
The woman at the terminal opened the door and people began to get in line. Caitlin and I stood, and she kissed my forehead.
“Text me when you land,” she told me.
I nodded and the tears burned my eyes. “I’ll miss you.”
Caitlin wiped her own eyes. “Me too, but we’ll be back this summer.”
We hugged once more and I got into line. As she walked away, I saw her pull the pack of Camel cigarettes out of her back pocket.