Kate fumed. Her mom had made her stay at home that night, instead of going to Julie's house. It was for a stupid reason, too. Their new neighbours were coming over for a dinner party, and Kate had to stay there to meet them.
"But Mom," whined Kate earlier that day, "Why do I have to stay?"
Mrs Shaw mopped up the puddle of juice Kate's older brother Winslow had managed to topple over only seconds before. Winslow was ten and never walked anywhere; he only ran. He had been grounded, but Mrs Shaw knew that the puddle wouldn't be mopped up unless she did it herself. She looked up wearily at her daughter. "For the last time, Kate, you are not getting out of it. Tell Julie that you can come over tomorrow, just not tonight."
"I already told you, Kate," said Mrs Shaw irately, taking the wet purple paper towel over to the rubbish bin. "They have a child your age and you need to keep him company."
"But I don't like boys. They have cooties."
"Not this one, he's already had his shot."
"All of them have cooties!"
Mrs Shaw stood up, now thoroughly irritated. She placed her hands on her hips. "Katherine Marla Shaw," she said, looking her very worried-looking daughter directly in the eyes, "You get to your room right now before you get a time-out."
"I don't wanna!" whimpered Kate, bordering on tears, although she obeyed her mother anyway and went to clean her room. Not that that stupid boy would be setting foot in it anyway.
At least, not if she had a say in it.
"Winslow! Kate! Come on down, kids!"
Kate and Winslow knew better than to ignore their mother's call. It meant that dinner was ready, and, simultaneously, their guests were walking up the sidewalk and would be ringing the doorbell in approximately eighteen seconds. They flew down the stairs, hair combed and clothes pressed, and the door opened in three…two…one…
There was a family of four standing in front of them: two parents, a girl and a little boy. The little boy was shorter than her, and scrawny. He had a mop of blond hair, straight and with a bowl haircut, brown eyes surveying her curiously. He seemed to be looking her up and down, almost studying her.
She looked at him, eyebrows raised in skepticism. This was why she'd had to stay home? This boy was the reason she was missing out on a Disney movie marathon with Julie? The longer she looked at him, the more she didn't want to spend time with him. He was no match for the magic that was "The Little Mermaid."
Besides, Ariel's hair matched her own. Long, wavy, and red. They had a connection.
Kate waited for him to say something, but he stood there and simply looked at her. The curious, questioning stare made her uncomfortable, but she ignored it for the time being.
Mr and Mrs Shaw were welcoming the boy's parents, and there was a girl standing with her hands on her hips who looked to be about Winslow's age. Kate was a bit afraid of this girl. She looked like the boy—brown eyes, soft, straight hair, and scrawny—but the girl seemed far more intense. Her hair was short and brown, her weight evenly spread on both feet, which were planted firmly in the ground. Kate was a similar sort of person—shew as strong and adamant and she would be bossy except for the fact that her older brother had all the power. Either way, she wasn't afraid of this girl.
But before she could open her mouth to ask if she wanted to play dolls with her, Mrs Shaw came up and began to speak.
"Kate, honey," said Mrs Shaw with a smile that certainly hadn't been there a half-hour beforehand, "This is Leo. Why don't you show him your room and let him put his jacket there?"
Kate gave a pleading glance to her mother, who simply looked expectantly right back at her. Kate sighed. She knew better than to argue with her mother. Recluctantly, she nudged her head toward the stairs. "C'mon," she said to the boy (whose name she had forgotten already), and the two of them headed up the stairs.
Kate didn't turn on the light. She didn't want to bring him to her room, let alone stay there, and she bet that he didn't even want to play dolls, anyway! "Okay, this is my room," she said in a rush. "Where's your jacket?" When there was only silence, she frowned and looked behind her. "Leo?"
He was staring, motionless, at the window, mouth agape. Kate turned to look at the window, too, but she saw nothing. "What are you staring at?"
Leo didn't move his gaze from where it stared. "The stars," he said quietly. "They're pretty, the lights."
A flash of recognition overcame Kate's face. He wasn't looking at the window. He was looking through it. She snickered a little. "Haven't you ever seen stars before?"
At that, his gaze was broken, and he broke into a grin for the first time that evening. "I used to live in Nashville," he said, a bright look on his face, as if he'd just inhaled a breath of crisp air, "You can't see the stars through the window, there's too many lights that don't come from the sky at night."
Kate arched an eyebrow. This boy barely knew her, and she barely knew him, but he seemed deep. She'd never met anyone who didn't always live in Oak Ridge, either. He fascinated her—just a little bit.
She looked out the window, too. The stars sparkled brightly and twinkled peacefully, like they always did, uninterrupted by large amounts of air pollution. She hadn't really notised how pretty the "lights" really were. But she could see how he was fascinated by seeing the stars, if he had been deprived of them for all of his life.
It was a good things he'd met her, then, thought Kate, so that she could expose him to the world.
After a moment of what would have been a thoroughly awkward silence, except that awkward silences don't typically pass between seven-to-nine-year-old children and this was a typical situation (kind of), Kate spoke up. "So…" She cleared her throat like her mum did in situations like these, and resumed the original purpose. "So your jacket. You can just put it on the bed, if you want."
She was feeling far less hostile at that point, and she approached him, reachindg out to take his jacket. He took it off and handed it to her, murmuring a quick, "Thanks." Kate simply shrugged, gave him a small smile as she ushered him toward the stairs.
He flashed a shy grin back.
Mr Shaw was leaning against the doorframe to the kitchen, holding a beer and talking to Mr Caulfield, who was propped-up against the wall, sipping a glass of burboun. Mrs Shaw and Mrs Caulfield brought plates of food from the kitchen to the table, chattering away merrily.
"So, Frank," said Mr Shaw, "I have to ask." He paused, looking over at the other man, peering over the top of his bottle. "Why on earth did you move back to Oak Ridge?"
Mr Caulfield laughed a bit and shrugged. "Times are tough, Teddy."
"No one's called me that in ages!" Mr Shaw guffawed. "No one except Eileen, you know."
Mr Caulfield glanced over at Mrs Shaw, then looked over at Mr Shaw and wiggled his eyebrows. "Is that so?"
Mr Shaw laughed robustly once more. "You haven't changed a bit since college, you dirty old man."
"Yeah, it's a shame it's been so long, really. Looks like you turned out okay, though." Mr Caulfield gestured with his glass. "You got the house, the lovely wife—" and there he tipped his head in Mrs Shaw's direction, who smirked and swatted the air while she finished getting the food on the table, "—the kids…"
At that moment, Kate and Leo came trotting down the stairs, giggling. "They really don't, you know," said Kate to her new companion.
Leo trailed behind her. "They really do! The buildings hide them and there's no way you can see them!"
"But we have buildings here, and they're still sparkly."
"That's what I'm trying to tell you. In Nashville, there are more buildings than here. So many that you can't see them."
They were both grinning, despite their banter. As the children continued, Mr Caulfield and Mr Shaw looked at each other and snickered.
"Just you wait, one day when they grow up they're gonna fall in love," said Mr Shaw quietly.
"Yeah," agreed Mr Caulfield, "and Leo'll end up just like you. Horny as hell."
"Shuddup." Mr Shaw swatted Mr Caufield. Mrs Shaw and Mrs Caulfield simply sat down at the table and smiled to each other.
Mrs Caulfield rolled her eyes. "Oh, my."
"Dinner's ready," said Mrs Shaw. "Kate, will you go get your brother, please?"