"You've got it all wrong, holy man. I absolutely believe in God. And I absolutely hate the fucker."
-Vin Diesel as Riddick, Pitch Black
We've all known the type, since there's one in every school. You know the one kid who just somehow seems to have it all? The one who excels at everything they do, who is top of the class in every subject, captain of the sports teams, and is attractive and popular to boot? Well, Caitlyn Bell was that kid in our school, and she was certainly a shining example of the type.
She was captain of the school netball team, and had led the school to two State victories, two years running. She had won several judo championships over the past few years, and had picked up a quite few trophies for archery, dancing and gymnastics along the way. No kid in our school could outrun her, and Caitlyn invariably sported the most blue ribbons on our school sports days. She invariably held leading roles in the school's plays, and she could dance the other girls off their legs.
Yet her abilities were not even confined to the physical-activity spectrum. Caitlyn was a consistent A-grade student in Mathematics, Science and English; the only subject I ever saw her get a B in was Geography, and then only once. She was a naturally gifted speaker with a clear, articulate voice, and was always chosen to give speeches at the school assemblies as well as being a notable force on the debating team. She was a formidable opponent in chess, and although I did succeed in beating her in a couple of games in our school chess club, the victories were largely hers, with most of the games I had against her ending with her queen, rook and bishop crowding my king and two remaining pawns into a corner of the board with an inevitable mate in three more moves.
And Caitlyn was attractive, in the sense popularly known as being 'drop-dead gorgeous'. In primary school she had been merely pretty, as all little girls are pretty, but in high school, as we kids entered into our turbulent adolescence, she had blossomed beautifully. Her long, silky hair, of a coppery colour so deep it looked black except where the sun glinted off it, framed a pair of deep-set, wide dark-brown eyes that seemed to bore through to your very soul when she looked at you. Below them, her small pointed nose surmounted a sweet-lipped mouth that seemed ever on the verge of bursting into a beautiful smile. When she did smile, it was literally like the dawn breaking. You could not help but look at her. To top it off, Caitlyn possessed a sturdy, athletic figure that somehow managed to convey the epitome of femininity. She was not slender, yet neither was she large; her saucy, pointed breasts and the feminine sweep of her waist and hips accentuated the smoothly muscled curves of her legs as they emerged from the short school dress she often wore.
I still remember the startling demonstration of her schoolyard abilities when I was in Year 9. I was friends with Caitlyn's younger brother Ricky Bell (who was one year lower), since we both shared an enthusiasm for computers, and spent our lunchtimes in the computer suite trying to hack the teachers' user accounts. Our efforts in this regard were eventually detected, and resulted in our permanent eviction from the computer suite when not in class. Thus it was that four of us - myself, Ricky, and two other computer nerds called Mike Swain and Robert Winslow, were sitting on the school oval drawing up computer programs, when we received a visit from Andy Rowe, the school bully, and two of his minions. These likely lads were the neighbourhood hoons, always getting into trouble, always sitting at the back of the classroom throwing spitballs at the windows, smoking behind the school sheds at lunch, and working their way into petty crime and vandalism after school hours. Andy was a big lad, whose father had been a sheep-shearer until he'd done his back in, and his son shared his shearer's physique - and mentality.
So when this musclebound pile of manhood took it into his head to show how tough he was by bringing himself and two henchboys against the school nerds, we received a reprieve from an unexpected direction. Granted, there were four of us and three of them, but none of us was up to fighting these hoods, and we were just getting up to head back into the yard after Andy had snatched Ricky's program sheets and cast them to the four winds, when a lightning bolt hit from the direction of the school.
Caitlyn didn't wait around for explanations. She simply waded in; throwing one minion over her hip, using her leg to trip him as she caught him around the shoulder (I believe the move is called "uki-goshi" in judo circles), whence he crashed to the ground with all the wind knocked out of him. The other minion took off like a winged chicken on seeing this, leaving Andy Rowe to face the wrath of Ricky's older sister. He didn't last long, either; big as he was, he was no match for Caitlyn's speed and skill, and within a few seconds she had him pinned on the ground in an obviously painful stranglehold, in which her angry insistence that he leave her brother alone was punctuated by his gasping pleas for mercy and promises of repentance.
This act earned her the title of "Wonder Woman" amongst us geeks (and probably most of the other kids as well); she had single-handedly defeated three of the toughest kids in school, where we four geeks had quailed. Nor did it earn us any guarantee of safety either, as while Ricky was thereafter safe from further depredations by Andy and his lads, the protective aegis did not extend to us. He beat my head in on the way home from school two days later, and since Caitlyn and Ricky lived in the opposite direction to myself my sole solution was to find an alternate route home from school.
Yes, Caitlyn Bell was every schoolboy's dream, and for that very reason was deemed by most of us to be utterly unapproachable. She was certainly friendly to anyone that managed to speak to her, but never anything more, and I don't doubt for a second that she was fully aware of the effect she had on members of the male sex. We all expected Carl Brandt, the school's top male athlete, to be her partner at the school dances, but what he had in physical prowess he lacked in IQ, and he liked his girlfriends to be all sex and compliance and no brain. So she simply showed up at the school dances and danced with everyone - at least, everyone who could pass the filter of her female friends.
Now these girls all had popularity and reputations to maintain, and association with Caitlyn was no small part of that maintenance. When they were in her company, they were all smiles and niceties; but let her leave them unattended for any period of time, and they became the bane of any boy in the vicinity. Any boy who had summoned up the courage to sit with this gaggle of girls during recess and lunch, if he did not measure up to their standards of male perfection, was swiftly driven from the group with whiplashes of verbiage as soon as Caitlyn absented herself. No doubt they gave excuses for his departure when she returned; probably along the lines of "Oh, he went off to play footy with his mates", whereupon she might then receive the impression that the boy had only been there to hit on her, and had taken off when she left.
So it seemed that this girl who had everything simply didn't have a boyfriend; at least, not one who counted. She worked her way through the "elite" boys - the popular, athletic guys who always seem to get the popular, good-looking girls - and dumped them, one after the other, when either her hectic after-school schedule, or her unwillingness to 'put out', or both, dampened their enthusiasm for the relationship. After that she just didn't seem interested in dating anyone, and her sporting and intellectual commitments became the focus of her life. Doubtless she felt there was plenty of time for relationships once she had made her way in the world.
Yet the greatest impact she had on me was the conversation I had with her, when we were in Year 12, one time I was lucky enough to be seated next to her on the bus for a school excursion. Caitlyn and Ricky arrived a little late, just as the bus was about to leave, and since nobody was sitting next to me she slid into the vacant seat, while Ricky took a seat nearer the front. At first I was shy, gazing out of the window pretending not to notice that the most popular girl in the school was seated at my side. But being the sociable girl she was, always willing to talk to anybody, she didn't leave me staring awkwardly out of the window for long.
"Hi," she said in her simple way. "You're Ricky's friend, aren't you? John Brent?" I turned to look at her, and nodded briefly. "Well, I wanted to thank you for it - he doesn't have many friends, and he thinks a lot of you," she went on. "He talks about you all the time."
"He's great at programming," I replied, "and he's helped me a lot too. It's weird, he doesn't do too well in school, yet he's so brilliant with the computers. I'd have thought that... well, you being the way you are, he'd be... well, you know, better at other things..." I trailed off, not sure if that was the right thing to say.
She bit her lip thoughtfully at that. "I'm not my brother... and he's not me," she said slowly. "I guess I've always been the star of the family, doing all the things I do, and I suppose it kind of puts him in my shadow a bit. You know something?" she asked me abruptly, her beautiful face hardening a little. "Everyone thinks I'm something special, that just because I've 'got it all'" - she crooked her fingers to mark a quote - "my life is just peachy. Well, it's not, you know? Do you know the one thing I want that I can't have? A friend. Not a hanger-on, not someone who just wants to bask in what they think is my glory - just someone to be a real friend and like me for me. Not just for me being Wonder Woman, smart, pretty or all that; just a friend, you know?"
I wanted to proffer myself in that role, but that would have been the height of crassness. I was a teenage boy; the hottest chick in school was sitting next to me in a blue-white checked school dress that exposed most of the length of her legs and arms; what else could have been in my mind as a motive to offer her such friendship? And she, canny as she was, would have spotted it in an instant. This knowledge galvanised me into taking a different tack; how could someone like her find a real friend?
"Well," I began uncertainly, "who do you actually do things with? Not necessarily in school, I mean - like what do you do after school, or on weekends?"
She began enumerating her commitments on her fingers. "Monday and Wednesday I have netball practice after school, till five; Monday and Thursday nights I'm at the dojo doing my judo; Tuesdays we have chess club; Thursdays debating or drama rehearsal; gym practice or dance on Wednesday and Friday nights. Plus homework in between, and on Saturdays and Sundays I help Dad in the shop. And then I have -"
I cut her off abruptly at that. "But how many people do all those things with you?" I asked her. "I mean - the girls you play netball with, do they also do judo or debating or the other stuff? Maybe you're so busy doing stuff that - I don't know - do you ever make time to just play around? Like just hanging around, kidding around, that sort of thing?"
Caitlyn shook her head. "That's not it," she answered. "I've got friends - on the team, at the dojo, in the club, and they're really nice." I could have told her a few things about her not-so-nice friends, but I judiciously decided to hold my tongue on that. "But," she continued, "what I don't have is a best friend, someone I can confide in and trust... I'm sorry, I shouldn't be unloading my crap onto you like this."
"Hey, I don't mind," I said, "it's obviously on your mind, and you should talk about it. I won't say anything to anyone - there's no mileage for me in blowing your secrets. So talk away. I might not be able to help, but at least you'll get it off your chest."
She chuckled at that. "I kind of guessed that about you," she replied. "You seem like a nice guy that I can talk to, and Ricky's trust counts for that a lot. He sees you as his best friend, and I guess that's what started me thinking like this. I don't know - I just like doing things, and I can't help being good at what I do, but sometimes I just wish other people... well, tried. Like I do. I wasn't born good at netball or dancing or debating - I learned these things by practicing them, long and hard. You know what my secret is? Wanting to do something makes you good at it. If you're really, really interested in learning how to do something, and that makes you put the time and effort in to learn and practice it, you get good at it. Like you and Ricky with your computers. I can't program like you guys can, because I haven't learned how; but if I did, then I can't see why I couldn't become as good at it. I suppose I'm just interested in more different things than most people."
I nodded. "My Dad says pretty much the same sort of thing. But I'm not interested in most things, like I'm not into footy or cricket or cars and that stuff. I like doing stuff on computers and that's about it really. I guess God made us all different, like what we're interested in, and then we get good at those things, like..."
"Do you believe in God?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Well... I don't know, really," I told her. "My Mum believes in God, and she used to take me to Church on Sundays, but I got to thinking about it and I thought, well, if there is a God He's not likely to be much like the dude in the Bible. I mean, a real God wouldn't be into burnt offerings and wars and choosing one tribe of people to be his favourites, like it says in the Bible. That's just a group of people saying what they think God is. But a real God wouldn't play favourites, I don't think. I've always thought of God as being more like what Mum tells me about, like Jesus - loves everyone all the same, cares about everyone. I'd hate to think that we were all created by a sadistic, evil God that wanted us to kill each other and treated us like pawns in a chess game."
Caitlyn laughed - but it was a harsh, mocking laugh, not an expression of humour. "Have you even looked at the world outside your computers?" she asked me. "You think that there's a God who cares about us? Or who doesn't play favourites? You know that saying 'nice guys finish last'? That's how the world works. It's always the toughest, the greediest, the most selfish bastards that always rise to the top. Shit floats, you know?"
That was my first inkling of how well she actually did understand the nature of her friends - and why she felt she could confide in none of them. "But you're not greedy or selfish," I rejoined. "You're just naturally gifted. Okay, you're tough and smart and attractive - but that doesn't make you a bitch. You finish first, even though you're... well, nice," I added, somewhat lamely.
Caitlyn considered that with her head on one side. "How do you know I'm nice?" she asked finally. "You look at me like the other guys look at me and you see a pretty face and a hot body and you think I'm nice. I might be a complete bitch inside, you know?"
That grated my ego a little. "If you aren't nice, why are you talking to me, then?" I shot back. "I'm a nerd. It can't be helping your rep to be seen being friendly with a nerd!"
She gave me a wicked grin. "What if I was just stringing you along?" she suggested. "What if the only reason for me talking to you was to lead you around by the nose to impress my friends back there? Do you still think I'm nice?"
Somehow, I doubted that, and I told her so. "What would be the point? You've got this idea that all guys think about is sex, and maybe you're right, but I'd say someone like you doesn't need to impress your friends by leading guys on!"
That made her bite her lip thoughtfully. "Maybe," she replied. " and maybe I might expect you to act like a puppy-dog when I pull your string, and that would get a few laughs." She laughed. "No, I'm sorry I said that. It's not fair. And you're right, I'm not like that. I can't treat people like dirt. I'm glad you don't think of me like that." She regarded me earnestly, with that soul-searching gaze of hers, then added seriously, "But even you'd agree I'm not your normal person? That I'm right about most successful people getting there by greed and exploitation?" I shook my head and argued, "Well, not really... I always thought people succeeded by being good at what they do more than anything. If you're greedy and selfish, that would make people hate you all the more, and want to pull you down. There's still some kind of universal justice, like karma, that makes you pay if you're a scumbag." She looked at me oddly then, and said something like, "So you think I'm wrong... Maybe I should..." and trailed off again, thinking. I wondered what she meant by that, but she interrupted me before I could ask.
What Caitlyn said next was the one shocking statement that revealed the real basis of her own nature. She appeared for a moment to be struggling with some demon inside her; then she glanced around, lowered her voice to a fierce whisper, and bent closer to me. "Karma, you say. Did you know my Mum was raped and murdered years ago when I was a little girl and the rapist got away scot-free? The cops did everything they could, but the case went cold and they never found him. He's still out there, probably still doing his thing, and he won't ever have to pay for what he did! There's your karma, your universal justice! If there even is a God, he doesn't care. You and the other kids all think I have it all, but you didn't know that, did you?"
I was horrified, and regarded her with a stricken expression. She had taken a grave risk in revealing such a personal detail, to someone she hardly even knew. There was nothing I could say to that, beyond a mumbled assurance that her secret would go no further, and she simply shook her head at that. I had already been questioning my belief in God, and Caitlyn had, to me at least, been some evidence that God did indeed play favourites. After all, why are some kids so bright and beautiful and popular, while others just seem to have lives made out of pure shit? I had felt my share of jealousy of her, and I had used the "Wonder Woman" moniker to my friends with the same egotistical derision that drives so many to mock those who seem to get a better deal from life than the rest of us. Now it seemed to me that her gifts had come at a terrible price. I tried to imagine that horrific night with the police showing up on her doorstep, asking her father to come and identify her mother's body; the heartrending burden on her father in having to explain to his children that they wouldn't be seeing their Mum ever again; the anguish and despair that would have weighed like a millstone on her family, and I had a sudden insight into the steel-spined resolve that had driven her to excel in all things, to honour the memory of her mother. After an awkward silence, I told her of this insight.
"You're right on there," she agreed softly. "You're more perceptive than most of the guys I know. Yes, after Mum passed away I really threw myself into life... She was always so proud of me, you know, and I always felt I needed to... be good for her. To keep her spirit alive. I don't believe in God and heaven and all that crap. Maybe Mum went somewhere nice, and I'd like to think that, but... this world being like it is, I can't see it. I'm more inclined to think that she lives on in me... that maybe, just maybe I can be what she never had the chance to be. So if you believe in God, when you pray, tell him that. He can't take away from me what he took from my mother!"
I knew Caitlyn wasn't talking just about her mother's life, either; I had a vivid and horrible picture of a woman who was an older version of this girl sitting next to me, lying bloody and broken in some park, her dignity and spirit and self-respect ripped away from her as she gasped out her last breath. I wanted to put my arm around her, comfort her in a way that was not sexual, but just one human being reaching out to another in a time of need. Yet I had no way of knowing how she would react to such a gesture, not to mention what the other kids on the bus would think, so I settled for surreptitiously giving her arm a brief squeeze. She smiled at that, and thanked me quietly; and we sat in silence for the short time left before the bus arrived at its destination. We were herded off the bus to take our tour of the museum, and Caitlyn's friends closed in around her; they had vetted me long ago and found me wanting, and besides, Ricky had joined Mike, Robert and myself for the tour. But I will always remember the dazzling smile she flashed at me as we went into the museum, and I knew that Caitlyn, despite the gulf that separated us, had finally found her friend.
Although I didn't 'hang out' with her even after that - between her friends, her studies and her commitments we had few chances to talk - she always afterwards had a smile and a greeting for me when we passed each other in the school corridors. On the odd occasion when we did get a chance to talk, she would invariably share with me some secret, or some thought about the meaning of life, and our conversations over the chessboard are something I will always treasure. Caitlyn, too, remembered our conversation on the bus, and often told me not to think of myself as a nerd. "You shouldn't put yourself down so much," she would say whenever I expounded on my nerdiness. "Do what you're good at, and do it as best you can. That's all I do. It's all any of us can do." She didn't mention her mother again, and I didn't have the heart to bring it up. I never told anyone else the things she told me, and she respected me for that. It is the one great regret of my life that I never summoned up the courage to ask her out on a date, but then I don't think that was what she wanted from me. She had said it herself - all she wanted was a friend she could trust and confide in, and to her, that was all I would ever be.
Later that year, she won a scholarship to Cambridge University in England, out of all the schools in our State, and at the end-of-year presentation she delivered a heartwarming speech about how we all could excel, if only we could find it in ourselves to want to do the things we do, and to put our hearts and souls into them. Remembering our conversation from some months previously, it brought a lump into my throat, and I'm sure I clapped the loudest when she had finished. She smiled in my direction, although whether she could even see me in that cheering crowd was something I never established. What I did know was that she was spending Christmas at home with her father and brother, then jetting off to England where I might never see her again. Doubtless with her brilliance she would move into ever-higher social circles, eventually to be won over by some lucky wealthy son of a billionaire, with a well-earned life of prosperity and success opening up before her; but I knew with cold certainty that none of us high-school boys would ever get to date Caitlyn Bell.
* * *
She died in a car crash three days later, during Schoolies' Week. I never learned the details of the accident; only that somewhere out near Patterson Hill on the way to Port Lockley, the driver had lost control and skidded off the road into a gum tree, killing all five occupants instantly. As Ricky's friend, I was invited to the funeral, where I saw Caitlyn's father for the last time. I told him then what she had told me, and that I would always treasure her memory and the lessons of life that I'd learned from her. He was a broken man, although I could see in him the same backbone that had given Caitlyn her drive and power, and his raw, gasping sobs as his daughter's coffin was lowered into the grave were terrible to hear. I think that was when I lost the last vestige of faith in any compassionate God I might have had; for I could not fathom the mind of a Creator so cruel and sadistic as to give someone like Caitlyn Bell such hard-bought gifts that had served as much to alienate her from her peers as to let her excel at life, such a promise of prosperous life after the pain of losing her mother, only to let her life end so pointlessly as just another road-toll statistic.
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