When we heard the news about Callie Sutton, we weren’t exactly surprised. The last we had heard about her came from Liz Harris, whose mother had run into Mrs. Barnes at Whole Foods a few months back. According to Liz, Mrs. Caroline Barnes had suddenly become very serious in the organic produce section, tucking the perfectly symmetrical sides of her blonde bob behind her diamond-studded ears and leaning forward over her buggy toward Mrs. Harris to ask the million-dollar question around our town,
“Have you heard?”
Mrs. Harris hadn’t heard.
“Julie Sutton- well, I guess she’s back to Julie Catherby now, isn’t she?- anyway, her daughter is back in that institution out in Montana or someplace. Only this time she’s refusing to see anyone,” Mrs. Barnes had continued with a voice a little too loud for such sensitive subject matter. When Liz heard this she called us all immediately, and we each sat in silence, desperately trying to remember the Callie Sutton we knew before rehab, before her classmates all left for college and she stayed behind, before high school even started.
The night before the first day of freshman year, we gathered at Ansley Pearson’s house for one last summer sleepover. Ansley lived in a house made of large, ashen stones, guarded by a coded gate like all the other houses on Halden Road. The Pearson’s long driveway led up a winding hill to reveal an extensive backyard adorned with the octagonal swimming pool where we floated through many sweltering days that summer. Sometimes, if we were lucky, we would catch a glimpse of Ansley’s older brother Hudson casting off his football gear after summer practice to dive in, his chiseled, golden shoulder blades arching above the water to catch a glimmer of sunlight before becoming submerged once again.
This night in particular, though, Hudson handed us a piece of gossip that would change the course of our adolescence entirely. We were seated at the Pearson’s kitchen island, elbows propped up against the cool, charcoal-colored granite, when Hudson rushed into the kitchen, hair disheveled and dripping wet from a shower.
“Way Pay?” Ansley asked, referring to the West Paces shopping center where the Buckhead private school kids usually gathered on weekends.
“Nah, John Collins is having people over. Callie Sutton’s back from boarding school,” he said breathlessly as he hurried through the kitchen door, firmly shutting it behind him. We weren’t invited.
“Callie Sutton? Wait, didn’t she used to go to Westfield?” Liz Harris asked, looking around at each of our raised eyebrows and widened eyes. Callie Sutton was a name that had floated through the school hallways every so often, briefly pausing to graze the lips of boys who hungered for her, or sarcastically spat from the lips of girls who hungered to be like her. Once Ansley had walked past her brother’s room and seen his Westfield yearbook lying on his bed, open to Callie’s picture. Her cascades of shiny goldenrod hair caught the eye even when captured in black and white. We had watched Callie cheer at many football games, and even from the far bleachers where the middle schoolers sat it was hard to look away from her long, slim limbs as they seamlessly moved from cheer to cheer, and her full, petal pink lips that revealed two rows of uniform white teeth when she smiled.
“Yeah,” Ansley replied quietly, as though in a dream, “wow.”
When we thought about Callie Sutton, it was hard not to think back to the night of her sophomore prom. Hudson had finally worked up enough courage to ask her, so Mrs. Pearson had insisted the picture party be held at their home. Mr. and Mrs. Pearson had been wishing for Callie as a daughter-in-law since the kindergarten parent-teacher meeting where they met the Suttons and discovered that Callie’s father Andrew was indeed the founder of Sutton Properties, the wealthiest developing company in all of Atlanta. Mrs. Pearson had spent weeks and large sums of money creating the perfect atmosphere in which to schmooze her future in-laws, with appetizers and an open bar set up on the backyard patio, and an expensive professional photographer taking carefully posed pictures of the seniors on the stone ledge next to the pool. After weeks of begging, Hudson finally caved and told Ansley we could come and observe the festivities, as long as we didn’t talk to him or any of his friends. We weaved our way in between parents telling each other how attractive their children were, how they couldn’t believe their kids had been at Westfield together for almost thirteen years, how lovely the house looked, and how wonderful the wine was. We stationed ourselves on the second floor balcony of the pool house, giving us a full view of the spectacle below. We scanned the crowd for Hudson’s sandy brown hair, knowing once we found him we’d also find Callie. We spotted his broad shoulders, and followed his arm with our eyes to see it was placed carefully around the waist of an angelic female form draped in a wash of blush pink fabric. The dress looked like it was made for her, clinging to her curves, and perfectly matching the color in her soft cheeks. Callie’s sunbeam-colored hair was swept into a low bun, and as she turned, we noticed a few strands had escaped around her face. She looked as though she had spent all day absorbing sunlight, saving it up to radiate on us all after the sun went down. It was truly difficult to look away, but when lines appeared between her eyebrows, and the corners of her soft smile turned down, we snapped back to attention.
“I knew it, you bastard, I knew it!”
There was the crash of a wine glass smashing into tiny little pieces on the stone patio. We watched as Callie gathered her dress into two tight fists and ran over toward her mother, a shorter, older version of herself. She had the same yellow hair, though Mrs. Sutton’s was a bit more faded from years of highlights, resembling the color of a peeled banana. One silk strap of her designer dress fell off the peak of her freckled shoulder as she advanced toward Mr. Sutton, jabbing him in the chest and letting out words we couldn’t hear through gritted teeth. Her lips, so carefully coated in lipstick at the beginning of the night, were now becoming a watercolor mess of hot pink and salty tears, smudging around onto her cheek, meeting up with mascara-tainted tears to produce a puddle of swirling colors that hung precariously from her chin.
“Limo’s here!” someone yelled, and the seniors hustled as fast as their tuxedoes and floor-length dresses would allow to avoid the scene threatening to ruin their big night. Amidst the chaos, we watched as Mrs. Pearson wrapped her arm around Mrs. Sutton’s shaking shoulders, pulling her inside the house. Mr. Pearson gestured to Mr. Sutton, leading him to an escape route around the other side of the house, leaving Callie standing alone on the patio, unblinking eyes fixed on the floor, hands still full of baby pink fabric.
After the word got out about Mr. Sutton’s affair, we expected Callie to falter, maybe stay home from school for a few days, but she didn’t. We saw Callie in the hallways, performing the simple and necessary acts of changing out her books at her locker, stopping for a sip of water at the water fountain, or pulling on a jacket as the weather grew colder. It wasn’t until Virginia Massey ran into her in the women’s restroom during fourth period that we began to notice a shift. Virginia reported to us later that day that immediately upon entering the bathroom she was met with the unpleasant noises of gagging and retching. She gave in to her curiosity and paused at the sink for a moment. When Callie Sutton emerged from the stall she looked Virginia directly in the eye, smiled, and then proceeded to wash off the end of the toothbrush she had used to make the day’s calories disappear. She then consulted her reflection in the mirror, straightening one of the navy and white plaid skirts we all had to wear, and unbuttoning the first few buttons of the light-blue button down she filled out and we didn’t.
“You okay?” Virginia ventured timidly.
“I’m great, how are you?” countered Callie, tucking one of her famous runaway strands back behind her ear. Virginia didn’t answer, but watched as Callie pulled out a makeup bag from her backpack. She carefully applied a coat of mascara, the expensive kind none of us were allowed to wear but sometimes stole from our mother’s vanity tables. She then produced a safety pin, and leaning toward the mirror began to methodically use the sharp point of the safety pin to separate her eyelashes, one by one. “Aren’t you afraid you’ll poke your eye out?” Virginia was aghast. Callie laughed without smiling.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” she said, throwing both the safety pin and tube of mascara back into her makeup bag, zipping it up with a flourish, and walking out of the bathroom as if she were just like every other girl.
Our next front-row seat to the collapse of Callie Sutton occurred at one of John Collins’ famous parties. We heard the party before we saw it, the deep bass of rap music throbbing through the first floor of the Collins mansion, and as we made our way downstairs in to the large basement, it pulsed through our bodies, giving us the false sense that our hearts were beating to the rhythm of the song. The smell of whiskey mixed with weed and sweat enveloped us. Virginia Massey coughed, but was immediately met with a harsh glare from Liz Harris.
“Be cool,” she said through the corner of her mouth. We followed Liz deeper into the warm, damp catacombs of the basement until we finally found the bar. The Collins’ liquor cabinet was well stocked, and we made our choices: vodka for Ansley and I, rum for Virginia, whiskey for Liz. As we searched through the fridge for appropriate mixers we heard a low, hollow laugh. We turned to see Callie Sutton stumbling toward us, laughing at a joke only she knew the punch line to. Her messy hair glowed white in the light of the fridge, falling over one eye, exposing the other she was struggling to keep open. Her shirt had shifted over at some point in the night, revealing sharp collarbones we didn’t remember looking so noticeable in her prom dress. Her jeans sagged slightly on her protruding hipbones, and were stained on one leg with an orangey red tint that looked to us like vomit.
“Excuuuuuuuse me,” she slurred, falling over us toward the liquor cabinet. After a few unsuccessful attempts at opening it, she wailed, “Where the hell is the vod…ka?” For a second we thought she might cry.
“Oh, um, here you go,” Ansley said, holding out the half-empty Smirnoff bottle. Callie smiled with her eyes closed, “Mmmm… I looove you,” and leaned in towards Ansley’s face as if to kiss her.
We turned to see Hudson pushing through the crowded basement toward us.
“Ansley, take that away from her,” he said, sounding like a full-grown man. Ansley looked from Hudson to Callie, dumbfounded.
“Now!” The look on his face wasn’t angry, but desperate. Ansley grabbed the neck of the bottle and attempted to pull it away from Callie, but Callie’s greedy hold wouldn’t allow it.
“Noooo,” Callie whined, her voice hoarse but childish. We stood, staring. This time we saw that Callie really was crying, tears dripping from her eyes and nose, falling onto her skinny wrists that held onto the bottle for dear life.
“Move,” Hudson said to us, and we obeyed. He took Callie’s wrists and removed them from the bottle, holding tightly to them even when she tried to swing at him.
“Callie, did you take pills?” he implored, trying to meet her eyes in the three-second long periods she could keep them open. “What did you take? Tell me,” he implored. Her crying stopped and she began to laugh again, shaking her head no.
“Tell me!” he yelled, shaking her. She just kept laughing, even when he placed her spindly arm around his neck and picked up her up, even when he carried her up the stairs, even when the doctor told her she would have to have her stomach pumped, she just laughed and laughed.