‘Come on, Cass! Admit it!’
‘Admit it? Admit what, exactly Matthew!?’
‘You had a good night. I know you didn’t want to go to the dance, not really, but at least it took your mind off-‘
‘No Matt, you were right. It was a good night. I’m having a better time right now though.’
The young couple fell silent for a moment, gazing up at the stars that twinkled down upon them, each lost in their thoughts. The school dance had been their last duty to perform as students; having graduated earlier that day this was officially their final night as teenagers, their final night before their responsibilities changed from homework and keeping curfew to bills, taxes and rent. Well, it was supposed to have been this night that signalled their move into the big wide world. For one of the pair, however, the finishing line of their childhood had been crossed unwillingly some time ago.
‘You don’t have to worry you know Cassie.’
‘Worry? Of course I do, Matt!’
‘No, you don’t! We’ll find a way, don’t you worry. My parents have said already, we can keep staying at mine until you’ve sorted out your high school diploma. It’s not over yet.’
‘Matt, there’s nothing to sort out. I am not using what happened to me as an excuse for failing my exams! It’s not fair and it’s not right, my family is not a scapegoat. I lost control, I lost focus, I didn’t bloody revise and now I’m paying for it! Case closed!’
‘But Cass, you know that there’s hardly anywhere in Riverview who’ll employ you without a diploma…’
‘I know. Just… Look, I’ll find a way. Come on now, we should be heading back. Don’t want to spend our last night as official teenagers in a prison cell for breaking curfew, do we!’
‘You’re right, it’s getting late. Wouldn’t exactly be an ideal end to the night, would it!’
Scrambling to their feet, Cassie careful not to let the heels of her shoes embed themselves into the soft grass they’d been sitting on, they turned to face one another, their eyes meeting and the rush of love they’d grown accustomed to over the years they’d been together flowing through them.
‘Matt… Sorry for snapping. You know, just now. I know you’re only trying to help me. I just… I can’t bring myself to make them into an excuse. It just belittles everything, for me at least. I’m already ‘That Girl With The Dead Parents’, I don’t want to be ‘That Girl With The Dead Parents Who Used Them To Get A Passing Grade’ too…’
‘Cassie, you won’t be. Anyone who thinks that-‘
‘But I’ll think that, Matt! I know it’s irrational, but… Just, please. Try to understand.’
His kiss told her all she needed to know. He’d try to understand, but she wasn’t sure if he ever would be able to completely. But he’d love her and her irrationalities anyway. No question.
* * *
‘Oh, gosh, don’t you both look adorable!’
Cassie had groaned inwardly as she’d gone through the door to Matt’s home to hear his parents’ voices, fixing a smile on her face quickly as they descended upon them. She’d hoped beyond hoped that they would have gone to bed long ago! It wasn’t that she disliked them, not at all, especially after they’d been so kind to her and let her move in with them when she’d needed somewhere to stay, but they were just so darn overbearing sometimes! She didn’t blame them for being concerned about her, especially after what she had been through. She just wished they wouldn’t talk about her parents all the time.
‘Oh Cassie, my love, you do look beautiful. It’s such a shame your parents aren’t here to see you tonight. They’d have been so proud of you.’
A constant reminder that they weren’t there any more, that she wasn’t only popping round to her boyfriend’s for tea and would be returning home later that evening to find them sat as always watching the television by the fire. The fire. That bloody fire…
Cassie blinked furiously, trying to stem the tears that threatened to fall down her cheeks at the thought of that night, memories flashing through her head no matter how hard she tried to suppress them…
‘Cassie, just get out of here! Don’t worry about us, we’ve got Dominic here, we’ll head back into our room and get out the window!’
‘Dad, I don’t want to leave you!’
‘Cassie, get out, NOW! Do as I tell you!’
With each step the air became cleaner, fresher, cooler, she was no longer having to physically gasp for breath, no longer choking on the smoke that had engulfed her. That was still engulfing the house behind her. That was engulfing her parents as she fled to safety…
Huddled by the side of the road she barely noticed the firemen racing past her into the house. She was waiting for them. Where were they? They should have got out now, should have come round the side of the house in safety to join her while the firemen tried to save what was left of her house. Where were they. Where were they. Where were they.
Their bodies had been found by the window in their bedroom, her parents curled around her baby brother in a futile attempt to protect him from the smoke that had already invaded his tiny body. Smoke inhalation. That’s what had killed them, the coroner’s report said. All that fire, that hellish fire, yet it was the smoke that had done the irreparable damage. Not that any of that went through her mind at the time. All she’d known was that her family wasn’t coming out of the house, weren’t leaving their home. She’d cried on the shoulder of the fireman who’d told her, breaking down as the news sunk in…
Matthew’s voice brought her back to the present, back to safety from the terrors that haunted her memories. His concerned face came into focus as the tears dissipated.
‘Come on. Time for bed, I think.’
Gently taking her by the hand, he bid his parents good night and led her into his bedroom, which they had been sharing since that night. Just the room, mind, not the bed. Heaven forbid they should sleep next to one another! Cassie had never really understood this rule universally applied by adults to teenagers; did they really think that they would only fool around at night before going to sleep? Surely they knew that if they were to do anything of that sort, they would just do it another time, another place?
She frowned. This wasn’t right. She’d just been close to tears over the death of her entire family, and now she was pondering over why she wasn’t allowed to sleep next to her boyfriend? What was wrong with her?
‘You did really well tonight, Cass.’
Gently stroking her cheek, Matthew gave her a quick smile before rolling out his sleeping bag. Such a gentleman; Cassie had offered to sleep exclusively on the floor, or at least do alternate nights, but even though she was the intruder into his personal life he had insisted on being the one, maintaining that it wasn’t as uncomfortable as she thought it was and that he was perfectly fine. She wished he wouldn’t. They’d alternated before everything had happened.
Matthew read her mind. ‘I’ve told you already, I’m fine down here! This sleeping bag’s toasty anyway, I like being all bundled up. Stop flipping worrying, Cassie! You know I’ll look after you. I’ll always look after you, even if you can’t find a job or anything. You know I will.’
* * *
Cassie had laid awake that night, the sounds of owls quietly hooting outside the bedroom window and Matthew’s slow, heavy breathing piercing the silence. She couldn’t get Matthew’s words out of her head. They troubled her.
It wasn’t right. Matt shouldn’t have to look after her. It was her own fault that she was in this mess, her own fault that she needed supporting, her own fault that she couldn’t escape the fire that would haunt her forever. She looked down at the figure of her soundly sleeping boyfriend. They were only just growing up. It wasn’t right that she tied him down, held him back. She needed to let him go. She needed to find somewhere that she would no longer be ‘That Girl With The Dead Parents’, ‘That Girl Who Needs Looking After’. As much as she loved Matthew, she would always be that with him…
Quietly, she climbed off the bed over him, trying her hardest not to catch him with her foot and wake him up. She grabbed her bag and shoved her few possessions into it, for once thanking that fire that had robbed her of most of her belongings. She would need to travel light.
She froze as Matt rolled over in his sleep, rubbing his eye before falling back into his slumber. She knew she couldn’t leave without explanation. It wouldn’t be fair, just as unfair as staying with him would be. Sitting down at his desk, she quickly began to write.
It was messy, confused, rambling, a completely inadequate portrayal of her feelings, but it would have to do. She knew she couldn’t physically say it to his face. Trying to ignore the stabs of guilt and cowardice in her heart she pulled on her clothes, scraped her hair back, picked up her bag, and opened the bedroom door. She hesitated for a second, then walked through determinedly without looking back. She couldn’t look back at what she was leaving behind. Not just Matthew, but her memories. She couldn’t let them trap her in sleepy Riverview, she had to try and fix this by herself. She had to try and make something of herself.
She didn’t really know where she was going. She knew it was stupid, reckless even, heck she’d barely left Riverview at all before now. A rebellious flush rushed through her, and picking a road out of town at random she began her journey.
Each step lifted a weight from her shoulders, each step shed a layer of her very being. She was leaving behind ‘The Girl With The Dead Parents’, leaving behind the pitying looks of those who thought she’d no longer amount to anything. She was just Cassie Rivers, finding a new course in the world.
She smiled to herself as she realised which road she had chosen, the one that followed alongside the river. Oh, the irony!
It was mid morning by the time she spotted the next town along the road, twenty or so miles away from Riverview. She stopped to catch her breath, looking from the cliff side at Sunset Valley. Inhaling the sea breeze, the sound of ocean waves playing about her ears, she felt a sudden sense of tranquility. This was it. This was the place. This was her new home.