top of page

Caro — A Short Story

Author’s Note: We are told repeatedly by mental health care professionals and Facebook inspirational posts across the board that our past doesn’t define us. Realistically, that is not always the case. My “Caro” is a short story about how traumatic events in the past, such as growing up in an emotionally abusive household, can affect our mindsets and decision-making as adults. Even with a good sympathetic friend firmly in her corner (my narrator), Caro is unable to let go and move on. But that doesn’t mean her friend gives up on her. Quite the contrary.

I’ve known Caro for years. Her story’s not something she likes to share with strangers. It has to be lured out of her bit by bit, offered by her hand in crumbs, over the course of a long acquaintance. To be her friend is to take on the strenuous project of collecting the pieces of her life that had once made something whole but are now shattered into numerous, uneven bits. And forget about gluing them all back together again. The king’s horses and all his men had an easier job with Humpty Dumpty.

One day she’ll bring out a small shard of it and shyly present it to you, to hold and turn and examine between your fingers, a sure sign that she trusts you. Another day you’ll find a hunk of it sitting curiously on her desk, where she’d left it by mistake, and she’ll blush and stammer and quickly shove it out of sight.  She’ll cut off your questions with an offer of coffee and cake. And then, a few weeks after that, she’ll go and change her mind again and decide to tell you what it was at the most inconvenient time possible. In the middle of the night, perhaps. Over the phone, or in the middle of a conversation you were having about something entirely unrelated. Or when you have a bus to catch and only a few minutes to talk. I’ll admit that, sometimes, it can be rather frustrating.

            Now, don’t get the wrong idea from me. I adore Caro. I really do. She’s a kind and gentle soul. Almost an angel, really. But you need a lot of patience to be her friend. Patience, and a lot of time to give. Fortunately for me, I have both.

I’ve only just, at long last, learned the whole story, and it is both a monumental accomplishment and a disheartening exposure of the wretchedness of the world we live in. Poor Caro. She’s terribly ashamed of it all. She tends to brood over the thought that things could have been different if only she had been. She gets this awful, heartbreaking look on her face when she broods. Her face gets flushed, and she looks like she’s going to swell up and pop like a child’s red balloon. That’s when an old friend like me has to step in, to place my hand over hers and reassure her that she made the right choice all those years ago. Leaving home when she was seventeen was, without a single doubt, the best and really the only thing she could do, because what would have happened to her if she’d stayed?

I’m not breaking her trust by putting her story down on paper. In fact, she’s placed her trust in me to write it out, to convey it truthfully and with as much detail as possible. Being both a journalist and a long-time friend, there’s no one more qualified than me for this job. She wants to share everything with the world eventually. In full, not just in bits and crumbs. She hasn’t quite decided when, but she insists she’ll know when the time comes. She agrees it’s best to have it all-ready to go when it does.

“You know I’m not a monster,” she said once as she tenderly scratched the ear of our landlady’s German Shephard, Arthur, who is always following her around, sensing instinctively her soft heart for animals. I, for one, am slightly less fond of Arthur’s barking and drooling.

“If people read this, will they think I’m a monster?” she asked.

“No, of course not,” I replied. “How could they? You were young. You went through so much. Who among us is a perfect human being at seventeen?”

She turned her head away from me, fixing her eyes, her so-very-tired eyes, on the wall, bare except for one crinkled photograph of an orange cat stuck on with clear strips of tape. She let me hold that photograph once, a privilege rarely enjoyed by any of her other friends. She used to carry it around in her jacket pocket. Now it resides alone on her wall, surrounded by yellowing white paint, like a lone boat adrift at sea. A rancid butter sea.

Arthur yawned and lay down to sleep at her feet. It didn’t bother her in the slightest that he drooled on her slippers. She can’t afford to keep her own pet, so she lets Arthur get away with anything, like a spoiled child being indulged by his childless spinster aunt. “What’s wrong with me, Fred?”

She’s asked me that question many times before, and she’s asked it many times since. Every time I tell her “Nothing” she forgets about it and then asks me again later. It’s as if there’s a clock in her head that ticks backwards, its finger a wagging, disapproving rod that pulls what should be her contentment along with it as it makes its way around and around in the wrong direction. Like I said before, you need to be patient to be friends with Caro. If you’re not an animal, she’ll never be easy with you.

And so, her story begins…

Caro was always a good girl, a good student, and a good Samaritan. In her own way, she also tried to be a good daughter. She minded her manners. Her school grades were outstanding. She never had to be reminded to do her household chores. In her spare time, for fun, she volunteered at an animal shelter. Surely, she was a daughter that any parent could be proud of. Caro’s teachers certainly took pride in her, since her remarkable test scores and essays were, theoretically, a reflection of their own obviously remarkable teaching abilities (never mind the other students’ performances). But Caro’s parents, a high-end lawyer and interior designer—guess which is which – didn’t feel the same way. Not at all.

Oh, they pretended to be proud of her when people were looking, as such parents tend to do. They wasted no opportunity to brag about her and her excellent grades and selfless volunteer work to their friends, but the tragic truth of the matter was that they really weren’t proud of her at all. They had other expectations that Caro failed to meet, and there were two failures in particular that they simply could not forgive her for.

The first failure was that Caro wasn’t popular. Caro wasn’t charming. In her parents’ world this meant that she didn’t have the knack for gathering people around her and entertaining them, the way any good daughter of a good family was supposed to do. Caro had only a few friends at school and preferred the company of creatures to that of humans. Caro’s mother and father, so revered amongst their own vast network of high society chums, and always at the top of the most important guest lists, couldn’t understand how they’d ended up with a lustreless daughter who couldn’t draw attention to herself and wasn’t interested in trying. She’d rather steer clear of the house for hours, venturing through the city park exercising the dogs from the shelter, or roll around on the floor at home, teasing her beloved ginger cat Rita with a piece of yarn, than go out to parties or dances or the movies with her private school schoolmates or the sons and daughters of her parents’ friends. Human company just couldn’t compare to a pretty, playful feline that crawled all over her or a friendly dog that licked her face and hands and whined in anguish when she had to leave them back at the shelter and go home.

She didn’t seek people out and in return people didn’t seek her out, unless they were attracted to her family name. They liked her well enough when they talked to her, but Caro herself was not a prize the way “Miss Caroline Burgundy” of the great and distinguished Burgundys was. Her parents’ disappointment in her followed her around like a sinister shadow, but she couldn’t change her nature. Her parents often wondered if there was something wrong with her.

Caro’s second failure was a single incident that took place when she was seventeen. I can hear you, the reader, ask, “This is when she ran away from home, right?” I say no. She did not run away. Didn’t you notice that I used the word “escaped” earlier in this story and not the phrase “run away?” There is a difference, you know. Or perhaps you don’t, so I’ll explain what it is. A mother or father who get bored of family life and walk out the door one day with a suitcase, leaving behind their hoard of confused and teary-eyed children, is running away. A delinquent who takes off down the street after throwing a brick through the window of the teacher who gave them detention, or the attractive classmate who rejected them, is running away. A con artist with millions of stolen dollars in their bank account who hops on a plane with a false name on their passport, is running away. A blameless, harmless, maltreated young woman, fleeing from persecution for the crime of being herself, is escaping.

Now, when Caro was seventeen, a turbulent year in any young person’s life, she had to face two deaths, and what happened after each one was what made her parents’ disappointment rise to the ranks of pure outrage. The shadow became an angry black tidal wave, of nightmarish size, and it came straight for her.

When Caro’s cat Rita passed away, Caro cried until her eyes ached. For two days, she lay still on her bed, hugging Rita’s favorite blanket to her chest, and she couldn’t be coaxed to eat or even take the dogs out for a walk. She couldn’t sleep, and her eyes took on purple hues. The manager from the animal shelter called the house to ask where she was, and how she was, and when he was told what happened, he offered nothing less than his deepest condolences. He understood. Caro’s parents didn’t.

“Rita was a nice cat, but she’s not the only cat in the world,” they told her. The patience in their voices was stretched thin. Caro’s seemingly endless tears exhausted them. “We’ll get you a new one.”

Caro could have had her pick of any of the noisy, attention-starved, sweet-faced felines available for adoption at the shelter, but she didn’t want any of them. She wanted her Rita. Her parents sighed, shook their heads, and sighed again. Gritting their teeth (and likely ruining some very pricey dental work), they waited for their daughter to get over it and grow up. Rita had only been a cat, after all. Why should someone make so much out of something that could be so easily replaced?

When Caro’s grandmother died a few months later, they held an elaborate funeral, with enough expensive flowers to stock a greenhouse. Caro wore a black dress, a black hat, and black leather boots. She probably should have worn a black veil too. Everyone at the funeral could see her face. Everyone could see that she wasn’t crying.

“I tried to make myself cry,” Caro told me over the phone at two in the morning one night. I had, admittedly, groaned aloud as I reached over to pick it up off my bed stand, but I was grateful that she had at least chosen to call me rather than come down the hall to pound on my door. We both would have had to face the wrath of our other neighbours the next day. Our landlady, usually so accommodating, would have given us both a stern talking to. 

“I wanted to cry,” she went on, her voice quivering through the receiver. “But I couldn’t. I couldn’t make myself sad. My Grandma… she wasn’t the kind of person you feel sad for, ever. You don’t ever pity her. Not even when she’s dead. Do you understand?”

It’s too easy to judge Caro and declare her a heartless cretin. Humans are supposed to outrank animals on the grand scale of compassion, and you are supposed to cry harder for them when they die. But if you look closely at the facts, you can see why Caro acted the way she did. On average, she’d seen her grandmother only once every few months, for a visit that lasted a little over an hour and consisted of tea, stale biscuits, and even staler conversation. The old woman had been the reclusive type and had lost interest in the goings-on of civilization decades ago. She didn’t read newspapers or watch TV. She didn’t own a computer either. She spent her days rereading the novels she used to lecture on back when she was a professor of English literature at a liberal arts college. She kept unearthing minute details in the texts she wished she’d talked about in her lectures. Sometimes, she added more notes to what she already had written down in the margins. That was her nature, her purpose. That was how she passed her Golden Years.

She entertained her granddaughter on these occasional visits either out of a vague sense of family duty or some mild curiosity to see how her strange, animal-obsessed grandchild was turning out. When she died, she left some of her best books written by female authors to Caro, her much thumbed through Virginia Woolfs and Jane Austens and Louisa May Alcotts and so forth, along with some money, for Caro to spend as she pleased. I saw Caro’s grandmother’s copy of Pride and Prejudice on Caro’s desk once. It had a hard, worn, scratched cover and bits of grimy old jot note paper sticking out of it. I was about to pick it up to look at it more closely when Caro slapped my hand away.

“We’re not in a library!” she snapped furiously. I apologized, and politely asked how old the book was. She ignored my question and asked me if I wanted coffee and cake.

Caro had liked her Grandma well enough, but the bond between them had not been strong. The two women had lived in two completely separate worlds. Caro with her animals, her grandmother with her books. They’d never been able to make those two worlds meet, even though Caro was an exemplary student and had a deep respect for books. But the passion wasn’t there, and her grandmother hadn’t been too fond of animals either. She had especially not liked cats, and whenever they wandered onto her doorstep she shooed them away with a broom.

How could casual friendliness between an introverted girl and her grandmother, a woman as solitary as a cloistered nun, compare with the bond that Caro had shared with Rita? Rita had slept in Caro’s bed every night and eased Caro into sleep with her soothing, lullaby-like purring. Rita had stayed up with Caro late into the night whenever she had a gruelling test to study for or a big assignment due the following day that needed editing, so much editing. Sometimes, the only reason Caro stayed up so late was fear of the uncertain future, a horrible anxiety that made her nauseous and jittery. Rita would curl up on her mistress’s lap and purr her healing purr anyway. Rita had lovingly licked Caro’s hair and the tears that rolled down her face whenever things went badly for her, when schoolwork and life in general felt like too much to cope with. She had made her feel less alone.

Caro’s parents said nothing to her during the funeral and the reception in the house that followed, but as soon as everyone was gone, Caro’s mother grabbed her daughter’s arm as she tried to retreat up the stairs to her room and dragged her forcefully into the front hall. Then she slapped her daughter across the face. Hard.

“You’re an embarrassment,” her mother hissed at her through a red-painted mouth. Her father only shook his head in disgust at his stunned red-cheeked child and then went alone into his office, slamming the door behind him and locking it. Caro’s mother slapped her again, on the other cheek. Now both cheeks stung.

“You’re never volunteering at the shelter again.” Caro’s mother was shaking with rage and humiliation. She’d been forced to listen to several of her relatives and friends comment on how Caro’s conduct at the burial. She’d had to come up with a lot of quick lies to ward off suspicion.

“Oh, the shock of it probably hasn’t hit her yet. She lost her cat, and now her Grandma. She’ll cry her eyes out in her bed later. All this grief has made her sick, and her health has never been strong...”

Now, Caro’s mother had no special feelings for her mother-in-law either. In fact, Caro has assured me repeatedly that the two women couldn’t stand each other. Caro’s grandmother thought her daughter-in-law was a pretentious and frivolous little debutante while Caro’s mother thought her mother-in-law was a cold and snobbish old bitch. Nevertheless, in Caro’s family there always had to be a performance. Caro’s mother had taken drama lessons in her youth and could cry on command easily, even for a woman she hated. A silk handkerchief to dab at her eyes with was a brilliant and convincing added touch. 

“For the love of God, Caroline, this has to stop!” Caro’s mother shouted. “You have to join the human race! You can’t just love animals and nothing else! Pets aren’t people!”

Caro fixed her mother with an icy stare. Her cheeks were blazing red from the slaps. She held back her tears, swallowed them down. Choked them down. She tasted blood. If she wasn’t so hurt and angry she probably would have been sick on the floor. “I hate people.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” her mother snapped at her. “You can’t hate all people.”

“Fine, then. I hate you and Dad. Does that make more sense?” Caro snapped right back.

A hideous silence, and then, “How did I end up with such a daughter?”

Caro shrugged. “How did I end up with such a mother? You slapped me. Twice.”

That night, Caro’s parents made plans for her. Plans to improve her, to fix her, and make her the daughter they wanted, instead of the sloppy, emotionally stunted disaster she was. They discussed all the possibilities: psychiatrists, special clinics, correction camps, boarding school, including one in Ireland where Caro’s mother’s cousin lived and worked. It was decided without question that Caro needed to change. She needed to become a people person, a normal person. Her behaviour at the funeral, and her behaviour in general, were simply unacceptable. She would change. They would will it.

But none of these plans came to pass. People who choose their words and how they say them so carefully in public are never nearly as careful in private. Caro heard everything they shouted through the walls of the family home. By the time they’d finally stopped, she’d made her decision, though it wasn’t easy for her. She laid there in bed wrestling with her options, and when she finally pinned one down she was so exhausted she could no longer think. She waited until they were asleep before she packed her knapsack and slipped out of the house as quick and steathily as she could, before she could change her mind. She didn’t leave a note. She decided that her parents weren’t worth a note and really, they weren’t.

I had the privilege of growing up with decent parents. Dear old Mom and Dad. Factory workers, they both were. Honest, simple, and hardworking. God bless them. They never took the easy way out of anything. They certainly never would have considered shipping me off to a different country just because I’d done something their friends thought was odd. They would have thought that idea was absurd. Dad would have asked if Caro’s parents were stark-raving mad. He’d seen that phrase in a magazine once and used it often with surprising accuracy. Mom would have shaken her head and said that rich people should just marry their big houses or their fancy cars if they didn’t want to roll up their sleeves and raise their own damn kids right.

Poor Caro. At least she got out. At least she had the money her Grandma had left her, which was enough for her to get by with until she found some work as a dog walker. Have I mentioned that her parents didn’t even look for her? They didn’t even call the police. They told all their fine wine-tipping buddies that they’d sent her off to stay with some relatives and went on with their lives. When Caro phoned them, after her eighteenth birthday, they told her, in short, not to come home unless she was ready to become a proper upper-crust young lady. That meant real friends only. Nice, acceptable friends, from the right families, and no pets. They told her they’d gotten rid of the dogs shortly after she left. Caro stayed away.

Several changes of jobs and homes later, she ended up in my building. She had gone from dog walker to receptionist, clawing her way up past office cleaner, pet store cashier, and mailroom clerk. She had moved from apartment to apartment, fought with neighbours and landlords, entertained and then kicked out a few unsatisfactory lovers and warded off the cockroaches, bed bugs, and rats. She had lived in neighbourhoods where garbage collectors only did their jobs when they felt like it and ancient pipes exploded in the winter. She had lived on a street where a teenage boy was stabbed for a forty-dollar drug debt. She once had a landlord who threatened to double her rent if she didn’t sleep with him (she didn’t, thank God). Another one made her babysit his children while he went out drinking. She must have felt like she’d finally arrived at the Promised Land when she moved into our clean, well-kept building, owned by a nice, sane woman, in one of the safer neighbourhoods in the city. She was thirty-five years old, fifteen years younger than me, but seemed much, much older.

We met on the stairs. “Can I help you with that?” she asked me when she saw me lugging my suitcase up to my floor. The elevator was being repaired at the time.

Without waiting for me to answer she grabbed onto the other end of it and helped me carry it to my front door. I’d just come back from a work trip abroad, you see, and I had no idea that she was my new neighbour. She’d slipped into the apartment abandoned by a married couple down the hall while I was away. I thought, at first, she was just some visitor passing through. You can’t imagine how relieved I was when I discovered that she was here to stay, because I had despised that married couple, whose loud arguments about money, sex, and in-laws, in that exact order, were broadcast like an unsavory radio drama at all hours.

I could tell right away that she was someone who had experienced many hardships in her life. In all my years as a journalist, I had learned to recognize that world-weariness that made a person’s eyes so despondent and empty, even when their smile was so sunny and sweet. Caro’s strained smile that day was clearly a heroic effort for her, and I felt that involuntary, squeezing pang in my chest that came every time an interviewee told me their tale of woe, which was often so bad that I could scarcely believe it was real. But it always was. 

“Thank you for your help. I’m Fred.” I extended my hand. She accepted it, and she shook it clumsily with a hand clearly unused to regular physical human contact.

“My name’s Caroline, but everyone calls me Caro.” Then she added, “I used to have a dog named Fred.”

So began our long acquaintance. I had the first piece of the puzzle that was Caro.

2 Comments


Jan AK
Jan AK
Jul 08

In "Caro," a young gamer named Caro discovers Geometry Dash APK, immersing herself in its rhythmic challenges. Inspired by its vibrant visuals and dynamic gameplay, she finds parallels between overcoming game obstacles and life's challenges, fueling her determination to excel both in the game and beyond. See more from here

Like

Ak Khan
Ak Khan
Jun 30

"Caro — A Short Story" captivates readers with its compelling narrative, akin to the excitement of Traffic Rider Mod APK. Both offer immersive experiences: the story through its vivid characters and plot, and the game through its high-speed racing and realistic graphics, providing thrilling escapes into different worlds. Explore more

Like
bottom of page