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Suntanned and Seventeen
It was early Sunday morning when he got the call, and he had only just rolled out of bed to fix himself a bowl of cereal.
“Man, it’s too early for this s***,” He grumbled into the phone, wedging it between his cheek and his shoulder as he peered, blurry-eyed, into the refrigerator, reaching out to grab the milk.
“Charlotte’s sick, Dev.” Ryan’s voice echoed low and hollow over the phone.
“She’s sick, man.”
Dev knew what sick meant. Sick now was different than sick then. It was heavier.
“You mean Charlotte from last summer, right?” He asked, knowing the answer.
“Been at St. Cath’s for a couple of weeks now.”
“S***.” The milk was left forgotten on the cool granite countertop, and his hand, still slick with condensation, pressed up against his temple. “S***.”
“I know. You gonna go over?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I will.” Dev took the phone away from his ear and stared at the screen for a few moment before hitting End Call. Charlotte.
He could only see her as suntanned and seventeen, not eighteen and hospital-pale. He could picture her, glancing back over her shoulder as the sun went down behind the tall fence that crisscrossed the lawn where they would listen to G-Eazy and Logic or Lil Uzi on those hot summer nights. Her long blonde hair would roll down her back in loose, easy waves and her smile would seem to tease him as she lifted her blue can of Bud to her lips. Her skin was a deep, beachy bronze and her eyes glimmered out from underneath her sly, upturned brow. He couldn’t imagine her when she wasn’t glowing golden. But it had been a year since then. He forgot about breakfast. It was 7:30. By 7:45 he’d thrown on an old white t-shirt and ratty jeans, keys jangling as he unlocked the dirty ‘97 Wrangler, its hinges creaking as he swung the door open and shuddering when he slammed it shut. By 8:00 he was on the highway. Charlotte. Charlotte Caldwell. Charlotte Rose Caldwell. They’d had a thing last summer. It really was just a thing: they’d gone to concerts, had bonfires, spent long days at the beach, and hooked up plenty of times. But at the end of the summer, they both knew that she’d stay in Barton and he’d be away at Syracuse. In his mind, she’d stayed suntanned and seventeen, frozen in time with that can and that sunset. He was sure that in hers, he was still eighteen and straining on the end of his leash before running away from Barton and into the world. He hadn’t thought about Charlotte Rose Caldwell in a long time.
By 10:00, after a run to McDonalds for twenty nuggets and a Mountain Dew, he’d made it to St. Catherine’s. The solemn gray building loomed over him as he parked the Jeep haphazardly at the very edge of the tow zone and began his steady trek inside. Ryan had texted and told him third floor. Dev took the stairs. One by one he rose, dreading the inevitable landing that would lead him through those cold steel doors to the third floor pediatric intensive care unit he remembered from broken bones and mysterious viruses. He was already familiar with St. Catherine Memorial Hospital: her stoic white halls and equally stone-faced white-cloaked nurses. By the time he reached the lobby, he spied a few early morning stragglers, faces he recalled from Barton. Ryan was there, with Ellie.
“Hey, man.” He mumbled, and gave his girl an awkward one-armed hug. “How is she?” It felt weird to be here, but he knew it was right. She might not even remember him, but Barton was so small he was sure it would mess with him if he didn’t come.
“Not too good.” Ellie murmured, glancing warily around the waiting room as if anticipating the arrival of some stone-faced white-cloaked nurse who’d stare, steely eyed, and whisper “Shhhh!”
“Guess I’m going in,” Dev sighed, scratching the back of his head with one large brown hand, looking up at the ceiling. It too was white and clean and orderly. The air felt dry and sterile as he was directed through the halls and instinctively he hunched his shoulders to make himself appear smaller. Suntanned and seventeen he told himself. The rooms numbers passed by: 124, 125, 126 until they reached 133 and his ghost-guide beckoned him inside, closing the white door behind him. The room was white and square and small, but her hospital gown was a pale canary yellow. As he walked in and saw her lying there -- eighteen and hospital-pale -- he wanted to ask if she was doing “ok” before realizing it was a stupid question, so he just said “Hey.”
And she looked up with tired eyes he couldn’t recognize and said, “Hey, Devin,” and suddenly he remembered the definition of every muscle of her arms and how the light would catch in her hair and the way she sang along to his dad’s old rock and roll CD’s and that quicksilver smile. He has forgotten how sweet her voice was when she said his name. She was the only one to ever call him Devin.
So they stood in silence before she said, “It’s been awhile since we-”
They were quiet again until she looked at him: “Do you remember-”
And he saw that same quicksilver smile again.
He went home with a promise that he would come back tomorrow. As he drove, he blasted those summer songs they used to listen to and tried to remember. They’d talked for nearly an hour in her little hospital room, and she was nothing like the girl he thought he knew before. She was tired now, and her green eyes that once sparkled so mischievously were dulled with exhaustion and occasionally bright with pain. It was her heart, she said. She wouldn’t tell him much else. The stone-faced nurse said it wasn’t terminal. He told her she’d get better, and she smiled. Her smile was very much the same, despite gleaming out of a face nearly as white as her teeth. Her cheeks were gaunt and sunken, her golden hair limp and yellowed. She said it was hard to breathe.
“Where have you been?” She stood in the kitchen with one hand on her hip, a cup of tea in the other.
“Out,” Dev replied.
“Out where? You told Aaliyah you’d bring her to the movies. You were supposed to take her two hours ago.” Roxanna stared him down, her deep brown eyes narrow. Dev groaned, leaning back on the counter.
“S***. Does she still wanna go?” He asked, and his mother shook her head.
“She went with Trey about an hour ago. Dev, where were you?”
“St. Cath’s,” he mumbled, “this girl I know...she’s pretty sick.” Roxanna softened and walked over to him, putting a gentle hand on his shoulder.
“Someone you’re close to?” She asked quietly. Her voice could be smooth and supple as butter when she willed it to, a stark contrast from the tailored pantsuits and black coffee it usually was.
“We were,” he replied, “I’m going back tomorrow.” She clucked her tongue softly and pulled him into her, cradling his head like when he was a little boy, though now he stood at least a foot taller than her and had to slump for his chin to rest on her shoulder. They’d both been to St. Catherine’s too often.
“Do whatever you need to do.” She murmured, releasing him after a few quiet moments had passed. Dev smiled at her before turning away and wandering up the stairs.
Were we close? He supposed they had to be. They’d spent nearly every single second last summer together, waking or sleeping. But before the call, he hadn’t given her a single thought. Not until now.
“Dev?” She called up, her little voice high and bright and full of all things sweet and springtime. Without giving him a chance to reply, pounding footsteps shook the stairs and she laughed as the door to his room swung open after she twisted the knob. “Devvy!” She squealed, racing to him, throwing herself into his arms as he sat up to greet her.
“Hey, Liyah!” He grinned, wrapping her up in his arms and squeezing her tightly, swaying side to side with a playful growl.
“Stop it!” Aaliyah wriggled out from his grasp gleefully, round face shining as she gazed up at him. He wrapped one big brown arm around her, thick as she was.
“How was the movie?” He asked with a small smile, “Sorry I couldn’t take you.”
“It’s okay, Daddy brought me. It was great!” Aaliyah gushed, telling him all about the brilliant heroics of the prince and beautiful voice of the princess and just how wicked the evil stepmother had been. Trey poked his head into the room, peering around the doorframe.
“Liyah, you okay in there?” He asked. Dev frowned.
“Wasn’t the movie great, Daddy?” Aaliyah beamed, “I’m telling Dev all about it!”
“Maybe he’ll remember to bring you next time,” Trey replied casually.
“Baby!” Roxanna called from downstairs, and he disappeared from the doorway. Dev itched to go after him, but Aaliyah sensed it and put her little brown hand on his big one.
“It’s okay, we’ll go next time.” She assured him, and he grinned down at her. Her little face was as wide as it was sincere and glowed with love. In her hand she clutched a figure from her movie, one from a happy meal. She smelled like french fries and apple slices.
“I’ll do whatever you wanna do, Liyah.” Dev promised her, lying back on his bed. She curled up beside him, nestling deep into his side and under his arm, her small eight-year old shape snug under it.
“Would you go to the moon?” She asked.
“I’d even go to Jupiter.” He replied.
“Would you fly to Neverland?” She wondered with a yawn.
“Over and over again if you wanted me to.”
“Would you get me cake even if it wasn’t my birthday?”
“I’d do it tomorrow.”
“And ice cream?”
“I love you Devvy.”
“Love you too, Liyah.”
So exhausted from her day, his sister dozed off soon after they stopped talking. Her little snores echoed about the quiet room, and he struggled to extradite himself from her grip. Eventually he freed himself, and carried her back to her room, tucking her under the purple duvet gently, as though she was porcelain and he was the bull. Trey didn’t trust Devin with Aaliyah. In fact, he was fairly certain that if it weren’t for Roxanna’s insistence, Dev would have no role in his sister’s life. He probably wouldn’t even be staying at home for break if Trey had it his way. Dev didn’t care, though. He would gladly have stayed at Ryan’s, or Big Al’s, or Keyon’s. But it would’ve crushed him if he couldn’t see Aaliyah. She was the best thing that ever happened to him. He guessed he had Trey to thank for her; after all, if Trey and Roxanna hadn’t gotten together, there would be no Aaliyah. Dev hoped they’d stay together. Yeah, they had their daughter, but he’d seen too many men walk out on his Mama. Sometimes he wished his Dad had never died in that white square room at St. Catherine’s, but in his heart he knew it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. His Mama had a penchant for picking no-good guys, and really, his Dad was one of them. If cancer hadn’t gotten him, the drugs would’ve, or he might’ve just left. Maybe St. Catherine’s was the nicest way for him to leave them alone.
“Oh, hey Devin.” She seemed startled by his sudden entrance, as if she wasn’t expecting him this early, or had doubted he’d show at all. He pulled up a chair and seated himself beside her bed, leaning forward, his forearms resting on his knees. He looked at her intently. It was quiet.
“What?” She giggled. He shrugged.
“How are you feeling?” He knew it was a stupid question. She shot him a wry smile.
“Well, I’m not dying, if that’s what you’re asking.” She replied, taking a sip of the orange juice on her tray table.
“I guess that’s what I’m asking.” He said, “But actually.”
“My chest hurts, I’m a talking skeleton, and I know it’s stupid but-”
“I told you it’s stupid.”
“I don’t mind stupid.”
“I hate my hair.” She couldn’t meet his eyes. “Go on, laugh at me.”
“Because it’s stupid!” She exclaimed, “It’s dull and yellow and dead and I just can’t stand it anymore.” It was splayed out over her pillow looking limp and straw-like. He noticed.
“Then cut it off.”
“Just cut it off.”
“I’m dead serious.”
“Well then maybe I will.”
He was funny. She wondered why he kept coming back. For the next week he came around everyday and sat beside her bed. Of course, she liked the company. None of her friends had come to visit after the first week. Her boyfriend hadn’t come at all, just sent an Edible Arrangement that was confiscated in the front lobby because someone in her ward was deathly allergic to strawberries. To be honest, she didn’t even like Edible Arrangements. She began to look forward to Devin’s visits. He was very consistent: always the same time, and he would bring her mixtapes. Well, playlists. She had to confess to him that she didn’t really listen to rap; she had gone with him just to get drunk and high and wild and she’d really rather just sway with someone at the Indie festival down at the beach. The next day he brought his old iPod and played The Head and the Heart.
She ended up cutting her hair, but only after he promised her would, too. She hacked off that long blonde mane that used to hang around the small of her back, and now it swished happily about just beneath her chin. He shaved the sides of his head, leaving three inches of wild natural curls on the top that she liked to braid with her long pale fingers. It made him laugh. She liked his laugh. She was getting better, too. They would sit on the floor of her hospital room now, the hulking freshman football player and the waif-like girl. She wore big, chunky knit sweaters to hide her frailty. He didn’t mind. She would talk then, and he would listen. He was a good listener: quiet and attentive. She could tell him anything. Sometimes he talked too, and she realized she’d rather listen to him: she wanted to know everything about Aaliyah and Trey, about his father, school, the team. She’d turned him onto Indie and he could gush about his new bands for hours. She could listen to him talk about anything, and she loved the way he called her “Char.”
She was getting better. Dev knew that. He took her out to the mall one day just to walk around, and they got frozen yogurt and french fries; she ate 2 larges, one of each. He knew she was going to be okay. Today he was taking her to the park. They drove there in the clunking, rusted Jeep and she laughed as they bounced over potholes and drowned out the squeaking wheels with her music. Dev would glance at her as he drove, smiling as she did. They reached the park by 2:00 and he laid out a picnic blanket on the sprawling green grass. They lied down beside each other to watch the clouds drift by slowly overhead. Soon, he found his fingers lacing with hers and she turned to him.
“Why didn’t we stay together?” She asked when both of them knew the answer.
“September,” he answered honestly, and she sighed.
“It was easy.” She said. He nodded.
“Easy to let go, too.” He admitted.
His hand shifted in hers and she tightened her grip.
“Don’t let go again,” She pleaded softly. He rolled over and brought her hand close to his heart, looking into those deep green eyes with his golden brown ones.
“I won’t.” He told her. But he didn’t say what he really wanted to. He didn’t say that he thought he was falling for her. He didn’t say he was sure of it. He didn’t tell her he knew he was falling quickly, irreparably in love with her because he didn’t know how. So she kissed him.