The lights flicked on, and Anchorage’s Old Pioneer bartenders stood on the dark wooden bar top yelling, “Closing Time!” over the clamor of glasses, conversations, and singing. Cait caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror over the bar top. She ran her fingers under her dark sunken eyes.
The chorus of “Sweet Caroline” changed into a “booooo…” of disappointment from the patrons, packed hide to hide like cattle. Guys pounded their drinks, girls rummaged through purses for keys, hats covered heads, and fingers navigated into gloves preparing for battle with the Alaskan winter.
The patrons were herded toward the doors. Spilling out, they shivered and cursed the cold, stepping onto Fourth Avenue. Hastily moving in search of warmth, smoke stacks of breath bellowed from their mouths and nostrils, the moisture freezing and glistening in the streetlights. Snow and ice crunched beneath their shoes as twenty-somethings scattered to their cars or hailed cabs in the vacant city streets with the mountains looming above them while bums huddled outside, begging for money, reeking of piss and cheap vodka.
“Yoozzee feeckking beetches,” one stammered through his teeth at Cait. She flinched at the sight of his nose, which was blackened by frostbite. His beard was growing icicles from the moisture of his breath. “I ammm goiinggg, toozzzeee helllll, and I ammm going to tatatatake yoyoyou weetthhh mamame… WHORE!” he said.
“Drink faster, and you might find God at the bottom of that bottle,” Cait said. She flipped her ebony hair and kept her stride in her high-heeled boots, but Cait felt unsettled inside. She thought a Saturday night of drinking would put her at ease with being home, but it didn’t. Anchorage hadn’t changed, but it didn’t offer any familiar comfort or reason not to see herself continuing on at the private four-year college in the East. She felt tired inside. She didn’t want to admit it but she was missing her old boyfriend, Tom. These cold nights after the Pioneer Bar turned off the lights, she and Tom and the rest of the crew would wander to the next party, held at a shabby old house along the east side of the city.
Her friends, Riley and Teresa, laughed and tugged at her elbows in an attempt to conserve body heat. Teresa’s red faux leather heels skidded on the ice, but she saved herself by sacrificing Riley and Cait to break her fall. Cait slipped, trying to stand, gravel grinding into her palms. Riley landed smack on her butt and stuck to the ice. “Go team!” she screamed but her cheerleading skills were lost to the night. Teresa doubled over cackling. Her platinum blonde hair nearly camouflaged her in the snow, but her dark brown roots exposed her.
“Hey, Courtney Love, you gonna stand there or are you going to help us up?” Cait yelled.
Teresa laughed harder.
“Yeah, yeah. Laugh it up, clown.”
Cait had finally made it to her feet, and brushed the gravel off. Riley’s numerous attempts to pick herself off the ground had been frivolous until Teresa intervened, picked her up and put out a smoldering cigarette in Riley’s blue wool peacoat.
“Cait-Cat,” a girl called from down the street. “I haven’t seen you in a grip.”
“Nicole, it has been awhile. How are you, darling?” Cait said, her words freezing in the air.
“I’m great, graduating in the spring. I have a summer internship in New York City! How’s school going?”
“I’m on sabbatical.”
“Oh yeah, I heard you were having a little bit of a rough time after you and Tom spilt. It has been a few years now, you know?”
“I’m well aware of that.”
“Well, I like your new look. It’s interesting. The dark hair really brings out your eyes.” Nicole’s friends were giggling behind her.
“Well thanks, you look just peachy too… I like the I-live-on-cafeteria-food thing you have going on here.” Cait waved fingers as if each one wished this girl good-bye and said, “Well, I have people waiting for me. I’ll catch you later.” She turned and started walking down the street.
“It’s so sad how some girls peak in high school,” Nicole said. “I’m so glad I wasn’t prom queen. It’s like a curse around here.”
The sound of Nicole and her friends laughing hysterically at her expense faded into the distance of the street, but the sting amplified somewhere deep inside of Cait.
Cait and her two girlfriends met up with Joe and John, Cait’s old partying friends. When Cait lived at home the last years of high school, the plan was to cut geometry class, quit the waitressing job, hunt as much as possible with her dad, and once in a while make out with Joe, Tom’s best friend, in the woods behind her house, at the edge of the Flat Top Mountain trail, and party with this crew of friends. And now, Joe stood there, hands in his pockets, balancing on the curb in his dress shoes. Cait wanted to crawl into her purse, and hide, as he looked at her sheepishly through his bangs. As the red light turned green on the crosswalk sign, she watched his stance change. He thinks he’s getting laid tonight, Cait thought.
“You look lovely as ever,” he said.
“You do too,” Cait said and pushed herself in between Teresa and Riley. She’d never thought much of Joe. It wasn’t serious, like Tom. She thought maybe even Tom knew. No guilt here, Cait told herself.
She was doing the old ritual again. It had been the same with the crew for years: pre-game at the Pioneer, game at the stadium, post-game at the Pioneer, and then to the after-party at any one of the brokendown houses rented out in the dilapidated Mountain View neighborhood. She, Riley, Teresa, John and Joe tried to carry on the tradition. What else were they supposed to do? But without Tom to make the odd joke or put his arm around her when she felt the future had left her and him behind, it wasn’t the same.
“You know, it is about time you get over the whole Tom thing,” Teresa said.
“Oh yeah, because you’re an expert at getting over guys.” Cait glared at Teresa in the rearview. “I’m sorry, but my idea of getting over things isn’t by lying on my back and letting everyone and their brother run a train over me.”
“You’re a beetch,” Teresa said, as everyone else laughed hysterically.
“Not my fault, you’re a whore. You did it to yourself.”
“I’m not a whore. I’m liberated…”
“Really, I can’t get a pack of cigarettes without running into nine guys you fucked.”
“BOONDOCK SAINTS!” The guys yelled at Cait’s movie reference.
“That’s why I am in love with you,” Joe said. “You think like a man.”
“Oh, good you can be my housewife then.” Cait threw her old waitressing work apron that she kept on the dash at Joe.
“Pick your poison ladies,” John said.
“I’ve got a bottle of White Zin, Riley and Teresa have a bottle of that rum with the hula dancer on it. What does your hand look like?” Cait said. She was back into the role of being Cait again, with this John, Joe, Riley, and Teresa, and it wasn’t so bad now. She just had to act the part.
“Empty,” John said.
“Did you get what I asked you to, Joe?” Teresa asked.
“Yeah, I got it, you two,” he said pointing at Teresa and Riley. “Owe us a hundred dollars.” The girls handed him their money, and John handed over a bag to Riley. “Use responsibly. Merry Christmas.”
“Don’t you dare powder your noses in my car!” Cait said, glaring in the rearview.
The air began to feel strangely warm. The glitter of frost transformed into large white flakes. The descent into the east ghetto was smooth and cop free. The windows were steaming up from John and Teresa making out violently in the back seat and Riley laughing at everything and nothing. Joe put his hand on Cait’s mid-thigh, but she slapped it so hard she hurt herself. She could feel a large red mark forming where she had tried to hit his hand. The car came to a red light, and Cait leaned over to Joe.
“Touch me one more time, and I will chop your hand off,” she whispered in his ear.
The light turned green and Cait accelerated the car, fishtailing on the thick layer of ice that covered the road. John and Teresa hit the back of the driver’s seat. Joe tried screaming, but the seat belt had knocked the wind out of him, so he just flailed his hands and then calmed down and gave Cait the finger. Riley had passed out, but no one actually checked to see if it was from hitting the window or just being ridiculously drunk. The flakes of snow had swelled and dropped swiftly to the ground. Cait’s hands on the wheel felt numb like the rest of her.
When they got to the afterparty house, a yellow tattered two-story with two tin garbage cans tipped into the street, Cait learned it was owned by the former high school quarterback, who was trying to make a living as a busboy at the Captain Cook Hotel downtown. The white trimmed porch was crammed with people lined up with their plastic cups ready for the keg and one kid with a blue and green knit hat on playing the tops of the garbage can like a set of drums. A dog howled in the distance. Cait watched John and Teresa go inside the warm yellow light of the house’s front room. She wondered how it was that Teresa would sleep with John tonight and in the morning they would go their own ways. When Cait was a junior in high school, she had used Joe as kissing practice and she used him just enough not to be over-taken or hurt by Tom. She had wanted to keep Tom at a distance, thinking she’d part from him in this cool and calculated way. She’d go off to school and come back home on a visit and find Tom, working at a logging job, with a homemaking wife, and three children.
“Hey look Joe. Isn’t this how you like them?” Cait said. She’d found Riley still passed out and slumped against the window, but her head looked fine. No bleeding.
“Shut up and grab her feet,” he grunted. “Idiots left their crap out here.”
“Leave it here! They don’t need it.” Cait grabbed the bag of coke and threw it under the backseat, putting the booze under one arm, and Riley’s feet under the other. The snow was starting to get deep, making it that much more difficult for Cait to navigate her load. Still she and Joe worked together to carry Riley and to part the crowd standing outside, smoking cigarettes and shoving beers in the snow. They laughed as they watched Joe and Cait struggle. The boy in the blue and green knit cap continued to play one of the trash can lids with a spoon.
“Laugh it up, clowns.” Cait said between breaths. “I guess chivalry really is dead.” Riley awoke in Joe’s arms and Cait tripped on the door jamb and dropped Riley’s feet as she entered the house. The bottle of beer under her other arm went rolling.
Holding her hand to her head, Riley untangled herself from her coat, got up on all fours and grabbed the bottle of Sailor Jerry. She crawled over to the living room sofa and said, “Hey honey, I’m home.” She steadied herself and said,“Hey, don’t worry. Do not worry everyone. I am here. I brought party favors! Whoo…”
“Now take your shoes off so you can walk,” Cait said.
“My shoes are fine.” Riley grabbed one of them and hit it against a coffee table, hard enough to knock the heel off. She put it back on and handed Cait the other one. “Here, break off my heal. You gotta do it. Then they’ll be flats and I can walk just fine.”
“No honey, it doesn’t work that way, because the bottom of the shoes aren’t flat. Now let’s take your shoes off. Sit down on this sofa. Come on.”
Cait thought she sounded like a mom as she guided Riley to the empty spot on the loudly flowered sofa. She’d always mothered Riley, talked her through calculus, told her who she should date. Who would take care of Riley, who could she depend on, if she left home?
“Yes, sitting sounds good. These people are dancing so fast I’m dizzy. They’re making me sick,” Riley said.
“Okay, you want to go to the bathroom then?”
“Yes, I think that I might have to be sick now.”
Struggling with Riley’s dead weight, Cait made her way through the crowd of people to the bathroom. Propping up Riley’s head on the toilet seat, she realized that someone had defecated and neglected to flush. She tried to move Riley’s head to the bathtub, but Riley fought back, and kept her head on the toilet seat. She reached over and flushed the toilet herself. Cait was gagging, and Joe was in the doorway laughing and taking pictures to post on the house’s Twitter.
“Laugh it up, clown. You wanna give me a hand?”
“Not until you wash it,” he said, glaring at the washcloth in her hand in disgust. “You know there’s a party going on out there.”
“No way, really?” Cait got up and started washing her hands. Joe grabbed her by the waist and looked at her in the mirror.
“I can be your party, you know. I don’t understand why you always have to be such a cold bitch. You know I love you.”
“I’m just a product of my environment I guess.” Cait was trying to slither away as Joe was trying to kiss her. Cait started sniffing the air “What’s that I smell? I think it’s a roomful of skank out there. I don’t know why you have to bother me.”
“Because I love you.”
“It’s not love. You just want what you can’t have. Honey, I would emotionally castrate you and wear you down until you’re barely a semblance of a man. I am really trying to do you a favor here, and spare you years of pain and torment.”
“I can’t smell skank over the smell of cold fish.”
Pushing past Joe, shaking her head in disbelief, Cait made her way out into the living room. A small group had arranged themselves around the living room table. John was cutting an eight ball on the glass tabletop. Teresa sat there with a rolled up twenty dollar bill, looking like a kid waiting for Santa Claus in Tom’s old spot.
“What the…!” Cait screamed. “When did the 80s make a comeback?”
“Aw come on Cait, it’s Christmas. We all need a white Christmas,” John said.
“You want a white Christmas, go outside!”
“Why do you always have to be a fucking Debbie Downer bitch? Shut the fuck up for once,” Teresa screamed at her. “You think you’re so goddamn smart.”
“Whatever, it’s your funeral. Go ahead and rot away in the wall until the ground defrosts. I’m sure there’s a spot right next to Tom.”
“Statistically speaking, the rest of us are less likely…” John interjected.
“What do you know about statistics? You didn’t finish high school.”
“I know there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” He smiled with his barely open eyes, and gave a stoned laugh.
“That was Mr. Smith’s favorite line on economy you idiot!” Cait said. “Whatever.” As she walked away, Teresa gave her the finger, her head bent over the lines.
Cait stormed towards the door to have a smoke. One of the Great Alaska Bush Company dancers was giving an encore performance on the stripper pole in the dining room. Joe was watching with a few other guys, shouting and throwing dollar bills. Joe abandoned his prospects with the stripper to follow her.
“I see you found yourself a fish to fry,” she said.
“I guess it will suffice while I’m waiting for the other one to defrost...”
“You got a light?” She asked, rolling her eyes.
“Yeah.” He lit her cigarette for her. “I wish you would love me.”
“I wish you would go away.”
“Smell that, I think the fish is out of the fryer.” Joe laughed, and ran back into the house.
Cait stood there alone in the darkness, knee deep in the snow. She didn’t care, it was normal. She blinked through her snow flaked eyelashes, her curls melting into one another as snow gathered on top of her head. The flakes melted from her body heat, and ran down her face like tears, taking her mascara with them. She sat there in the silence of the night, realizing why the Native Alaskans had a hundred different words for snow. People… they just take it for granted. They think about it as hindering transportation and efficiency, costing them money. People wake up early, not to enjoy it, but to curse it as they dig themselves out so their day can start. She jumped out of her thoughts as cheers came from the beer pong tournament garage.
“Cait, I need you to come here right now!” Joe screamed.
“What the hell,” she said. She moved her legs, but fell in the snow. Joe rushed over to her and picked her up.
“Come on, come on. We need your help.” He dragged her to the door.
Teresa was passed out on the sofa, head down, both hands cupped around a beer. Her platinum blonde hair hung over her face like a veil. Her arms and legs were turning colors. Half of the group was laughing; the other half was pacing and panicking. John hit her in the face, trying to wake her up, and shooed Riley away. Riley had crawled out of the bathroom, and sat next to Teresa, playing with the hair in her face.
“We need to call 911,” John said, checking for her pulse.
“Does she have a pulse?” Joe asked.
“Yes, but it’s all over the place.”
“You idiot, you’re high, move over and let me check it.” Cait shoved him out of the way. “How many did she do?”
“Are you kidding me?” She looked for a pulse and checked her breathing. Teresa jerked and grabbed Cait’s arm, squeezing it until it began to tingle. Her eyes opened and pierced through her curtain of hair.
“I’m going to take you with me,” Teresa said.
“To hell…we’re on a train to hell and you’re coming with me…”
“Are you okay?”
Teresa pushed Cait out of the way and stood up. “THIS IS HELL! I saw Tom and he’s in hell too, and he said we’re going too.”
Teresa started ripping off her clothes. Cait tried to stop her, but Teresa pushed her up against the wall. Teresa stumbled around, teetering from side to side, and everyone watched in silence, except for Riley, who shouted, “You go, girl!” with a cheerleading clap.
Cait stared in disbelief. She no longer desired to take care of Riley, Teresa, John, or Joe. There’s nothing left, she thought.
Teresa stood close to her but this time she was calm as if asking for sympathy. “They threw us in the snow,” Teresa said in a high pitch. She broke into sobbing. “And buried us” she continued. “Now they’re just waiting to watch us die. We’re all fucked, we’re all dead, and this is hell. We’re all going to stay here. Tom’s waiting for you.” She touched Cait’s face. “You’re the prom queen.”
Cait pushed herself away from Teresa.
Cait ran a block away from the house and the streetlights, staring up at Old Woman Mountain before she realized she was on the Old Glenn Highway and Boniface Boulevard and that the neighborhood was filled with quiet houses. She stopped, took off her high-heeled boots. She started to run again, through the knee-deep snow in her stockings. She grew numb from the cold. The snow pulled and tugged at her legs, tripping her up, sucking her backwards like quicksand. A cop drove up and slowed beside her.
“Cait! Cait is that you? What the hell are you doing out here at this time of night. It’s not safe over here. Where’s your car?” He stopped the car, got out, and wrapped his parka around her. “God, Cait, you’re in your bare feet.”
“Brandon, Brandon. I want to go home. Can you take me home?”
“Okay, get in. I’ll take you to your parents’ house. They still live in the neighborhood right?”
He helped her up into the passenger’s seat of the SUV. He took her cell phone and called her parents’ house. It was a slow ride; the plow on the front of the Explorer was scraping against the layers of ice, trying to cut through the layers of heavy wet snow. He talked on the phone with her parents, tried to ask her questions again, but Cait just stared out the window. The snowfall piled up on the mailboxes and she imagined it covering Anchorage. Brandon carried her out of the car into her parents’ house. They threw blankets around her and gave her tea. Cait didn’t realize how cold she was until she was in the house.
“Honey, you have to talk to me,” her mother said, rubbing her face, and towel drying her hair.
“Mom!” she grabbed her mother, and dug her face into her chest. “Mom, you have to help me.”
“Honey, you have to speak up. I can’t hear you.”
“Mom, you have to help me. I have to get out of here. I have to leave. I’m going to die if I stay here. I’m going to die.”
Her mom looked horrified at her father. Her father handed her a mug of tea. Cait held on tight to it.
“Did she take something, Brandon? Is she on drugs?” her mother asked.
“No, no, she’s in shock. She might be a little drunk, but there’s no sign of drugs.”
“Honey, honey, you have to tell us what’s wrong.”
Cait sat there shaking in her mother’s arms, sobbing uncontrollably. Her mother was wiping the lines of mascara off her face, encouraging her to drink more tea. She took small, but loud slurps. Her little sister had woken up from all the commotion and stood crying, holding her father’s hand.
“You have to help me! You have to help me. I have to get out of here. I’m not ready to die.”