Driving down a residential road at exactly 25 mph, on the way to get coffee creamer and wheat bread, a mother told her daughter, “I knew the kid that used to live in that house.”
Hellen didn’t tell her daughter the kid’s name was Henry, and she knew him very well.
She grew up here. She rode her bike on these hills, stomped in this creek, slipped through that hole in the fence. Hellen grew up and left, and came back, and then left again. And then, after her daughter grew up, the whole family came back once more.
These were her roads. Her people lived in these neighborhoods. She knew all the stories.
As for Henry’s house, the story mostly started when she decided his party sucked. It was New Year’s Eve, and Hellen couldn’t even be bothered to stick it out until midnight. In her brand new white boots, she was going to walk all the way home.
In freshman year, Hellen would have died to get an invite to Henry’s annual New Year’s party. She went out and joined the swim team (which was torture in the winter). She stopped playing in the creek. She started babysitting, then took her cash straight to the mall and bought whatever the mannequins were wearing. And she found that one day, when she emerged from the pool, people found her recognizable. They smiled. They wanted her to come to things.
But she still hated so much whenever someone brought out old pictures of her. Looking at old yearbooks – and realizing her classmates could look at them too – made her feel all cold and shivery like she did in the locker room after swimming laps in December.
But tonight, walking home early seemed like the most logical decision – past wishes be damned. She had arrived with her best friend Kate, who had disappeared hours ago with her boyfriend. Hellen wasn’t going to go looking for her though, because even if Kate wasn’t busy with Dylan, she was most certainly wasted at this point.
Everyone was. That was the problem. Besides the fact that no one wants to leave a New Year’s Eve party before the new year, none of them could guarantee they would get her back in one piece. She wanted to ring in the new year in the peace of her own bed, not a hospital one.
It was just so loud in there. She couldn’t unclench her hands. And Henry, wearing the same frayed green sweater he’d had since freshman year, kept asking her about her resolutions whenever the conversation between them went still.
Yes, she had thought, I do want to do something. I want to do something.
And so Hellen’s new white boots were clomping along on the sidewalk leading out of Henry’s neighborhood. The truth was that she had worn them to impress Henry, but it only took her half an hour to realize how dumb she had been to want approval from a boy who drank his soda at room temperature because he had forgotten to go buy ice before a party.
She had changed so many times before leaving that her mother had come upstairs and asked if her plans had been cancelled. It was all no good, because this outfit had to be Henry’s. The sparkling blue sweater she wanted to wear wouldn’t work because Andy would be at the party; she had worn it on their first (and last) date. That skirt was Andy’s too. This shirt, Nathan’s. And so on. Then, when she finally settled on the outfit, she had wanted to pull her hair up – but the scrunchie was Eric’s.
Now, she just wished she hadn’t given her new boots to Henry. She wanted to wear them for her spring talent show at school. She had performed in it before, but since she was a senior now, she was going to make the leap to singing solo, and to be honest, she wanted everyone to think her boots were new so they could be distracted from her voice if things went bad. And she didn’t want to be thinking about anyone else as she was doing it.
Hellen turned out of Henry’s neighborhood, where the sidewalk ended and the main road picked up. The speed limit was higher here, so she walked faster, too. She picked her way along carefully, ducking behind bushes whenever she saw headlights. She knew it was just her luck that it would end up being a cop who would bust her for being the least bit tipsy.
No, no time for that kind of run-in. She just wanted to get home and find her mother’s good trash bags and start demolishing her closet. By morning, she would no longer feel like she was constantly hosting every boy in the senior class. She couldn’t wait to be alone.
Switching off to a side-street shortcut, Hellen paused in a street light to inspect the state of her white boots. She was pleased to find they were still spotless. She scurried on, imagining that there had been no party, that she had just been taking a walk to feel the night air. These were her roads, after all, and it all felt very small most of the time. So she was surprised when the pavement in front of her seemed to stretch and stretch, on and on.