Chapter 17: Photographs and MemoriesFor Jaehla, poet and caster of spells.
But that's not something that i'm looking forward to...
I can't get used to living here,
While my heart is broke, my tears i cried for you.
I want you here to have and hold,
As the years go by and we grow old and grey.
and how, so many years ago
we explored the woods together,
you and i…
fashioned dolls out of clay and strung flowers in your hair,
roses on my lips,
and dreamed of growing wings someday to fly away as one…
we were never to part, you and i;
such were promises we made*
It wasn’t as if Karen didn’t know it was coming. The years of holding it at bay, keeping the memories vague, sanitized, and safe when even allowed out, could last only so long. Ultimately, it had to be faced, and that fuzzy realization nestled in her mid-section like a beehive, a vague but relentless, unsettling hum.
She even knew, more or less, where it would come from almost as soon as she started mentally planning the conversion of the den into Laci’s studio.
Still, there wasn’t any reason to get all worked up about it in the first place. That was what? Twenty, twenty-five years ago? A lot of water under the bridge since then. And for Christ’s sake, let’s not create some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. It was a skeleton which had rattled many times as a reminder of its presence, however distant that might be. Nonetheless, she spent a considerable amount of unconscious mental energy trying to keep it dormant.
There was something else she was missing, something powerful and just beyond the reach of awareness.
The first real salvo actually wasn’t too bad. Karen was driving back to town Friday afternoon from one of the rural outlying towns, where she’d met with a developer interested in parcel of land off the highway zoned industrial outside. It was a half an hour drive on back road shortcuts with not much to hold her attention. It was prime daydreaming time.
Rather than Laci, or tomorrow’s shopping trip to Baytown, Karen’s brain latched on to an indistinct memory from childhood which had been dancing on the horizon of her consciousness. What unfolded inside her head was more a patchwork of images and vague emotions, a sort of mental précis, the fine details of the event long since discarded as unneeded.
The ugly, monochromatic landscape, gray tree trunks and limbs stark against the receding, dirty snowpack, whirred by unnoticed. A small smile curled the edges of Karen’s lips.
They came boiling out of the house on a warm, late spring morning, two girls of seven on a mission. They bounded across the lawn with a natural but clumsy grace, both carrying plastic bait pails and small aquarium nets. They were dressed in shorts, t-shirts and glittery jelly shoes. One of the girls, Karen, sported a mop of unruly dark curls, the other, Lisa, a long honey colored mane laced with diaphanous wisps of curls.
“This way,” Lisa cried with a broad gesture as she made tracks for the far corner of the yard. There the verdant lawn abruptly yielded to the more thuggish puckerbrush. There weren’t any trails or paths worthy of the name this early in the season, but that didn’t matter a whit. Both girls were veteran swale grass trekkers.
Karen and Lisa had been an inseparable pair long before the concept of friendship was even imperfectly grasped by them. Neither girl could imagine herself as existing in the absence of the other. Had either stopped to consider the idea, they would have scoffed at the adult notion that the friendships of childhood rarely survived adolescence.
The girls were swallowed up by the rank meadow as they began their quest. Yesterday in school their science teacher made an assertion that was so outrageous it couldn’t be taken at face value – it required hard evidence before they’d believe that pollywogs grew into frogs, and that you could even see legs sprouting from their plump, squirmy bodies. During last night’s sleep over, they determined to put the question to rest once and for all.
Beyond the boundaries of the tended yard, the land was cut through by a small stream which was sluggish in high summer. Now however, it was still running high with the last of the spring runoff, which left the whole bottomland a great and fertile wetland. Karen instinctively yielded path-finding to Lisa this day. Saddled with older brothers who had no interest in waiting for her to catch up, Lisa had long ago learned to fear nothing in the fields and woods of the semi-rural neighborhood.
They barged ahead, swishing and snapping through the undergrowth, chattering like magpies the whole time. They’d gone no more than a dozen yards before the ground got spongy, then goopy, and finally ankle deep muck. Last year’s cattails sported wild heads of fluff, and a new crop of reeds blended in with the old.
“My brother Bill says there’s a snowmobile trail runs through here and there’s a bridge over the stream,” Lisa said with solemn authority. “That’d be a good place to start.”
“Yeah, if we can find it in this mess.”
“I can find it, don’t worry, I don’t get lost.”
Karen giggled, and then squealed as she almost lost her balance. She grabbed Lisa’s arm and caught herself. She wrapped her arms around Lisa’s neck. “Help me! I’m stuck.”
The girls embraced and tugged and pulled until the muck reluctantly released Karen’s feet. “I’m taking my shoes off,” she announced, “Else the mud will suck ‘em off.” She reached down and gathered the footwear from the mud.
Neither girl was squeamish about sloshing barefoot through swamp muck. The going was much easier without shoes. Step-slurp, step-slurp. Their progress was steady until they came to a branch of the stream where the muck had been scoured away to firm, gravelly ground. The ground on the other side of the stream was higher and mostly dry. Alders took advantage and grew in profusion.
They pushed on through gaps in the alder thickets until they came to the main stream, the one that would still be there in July, if only a trickle. Now it was knee deep and running at a steady clip. “We’re gonna get wet,” Karen warned.
“Duh! We already are wet. This has gotta be the way to the bridge,” Lisa answered, and they plunged in. They waded down the stream, and sure enough, they came to a rickety wooden bridge spanning the small brook. “There it is,” Lisa cried. “Told ya I’d find it.”
“I bet there’s frogs all over the place,” Karen said with confidence. As if in acknowledgement, a bullfrog belched a low, “BAH-roooop
The girls came to a mucky backwater of the stream where they found a profusion of frogs. They spent the better part of half an hour trying in vain to catch one. They were never quite fast enough. At last Karen, focusing intently, crept up on a frog, only its head exposed above the water. When she got near enough, her hands darted out and grasped the frog before it could dive away. “I got one,” she squealed. “I got one.”
They carefully inspected their quarry. Nothing special, just an ordinary frog, no signs of leftover pollywog features. Disappointed, Karen said, “What should we do with him?”
“Ah, let him go,” Lisa said dismissively.
Karen squatted and released the captive frog. While she was down close to the ground, something caught her eye. It looked foamy and out of place, off where the swamp grass met the flowing water. “What’s that? That foamy stuff?” she said, pointing.
Karen, Lisa right behind her, waded over to the unusual find. When they reached it, it was an irregular amorphous mass of what looked tiny eyeballs. “That ain’t foam,” Lisa declared, and without warning, she plunged her hand into the mass. “Ewwwww!” she cried in disgust, but she didn’t pull her hand away.
Karen had to see for herself what was worthy of an “Ewwwww.” She dunked her own hand in. It was like sticking it in a mass of gelatinous marbles, and the odd sensation was indeed Ewwwww-worthy. “What is it,” Karen said in a voice tinged with disgust.
“I think its frog’s eggs. ‘Member the pitchers Mr. Saucier showed us? That’s what they looked like.”
“Well, if there’s eggs, it must mean there’s pollywogs around.”
They moved slowly on the edge of the stream, and they came to a still pool by the bridge. Karen looked down, and at first all she saw were hundreds of little black things, no bigger than exclamation points darting about. On closer inspection where the water was still clear but close to the mucky, reedy ground where they captured the frog, she saw something flashing through the water.
Karen crept over as stealthily as she could. Her sharp, young eyes saw a shadow move in the water. She bent closer, her eyes fixed on her quarry – once seen, it couldn’t be unseen. It was a plump, squirmy creature. A sharp pang of shock pulsed over her when she spied tiny appendages sprouting beneath the pollywog’s tail. Could it really be?
Somehow Karen managed creep closer without spooking her target. She was the picture of pure concentration. Uncluttered by adult limitations, her young mind could focus like a laser while blocking out distractions. She carefully dipped the small net into the water behind the still pollywog.
No conscious thought was required to pull the trigger at the correct moment. Her hand flashed forward before the amphibian creature’s nervous system even registered her presence. She triumphantly lifted the net and saw a dark squirming form. Before she was even fully upright, she was squealing, “I got one! I got one! Lisa! I got one! Look, look!”
Lisa straightened up from her own search-crouch. “No way,” she said. “Did you really? You ain’t lying?”
“No, no,” Karen cried bouncing up and down on her tippy-toes. “Look!”
Lisa sloshed over, her own net and the bait pail in her hands. “Does it have legs?”
“I dunno yet, I think so.”
Lisa arrived, her brow furrowed skeptically. “Let’s see it,” she demanded.
Both girls peered into the bottom of the net. “Holy Moly,” Lisa breathed with a solemnity appropriate to the wonderment of their discovery. “It does have legs!”
“Ohmygod,” Karen said in a whisper approaching awe. “I can hardly believe it! Lookit that, two legs. Does that mean this is gonna turn into a frog?”
“I dunno, I guess that’s how it works.”
“So what’re we gonna do now?”
“Maybe we can watch it change into a frog. Let’s put it in the bucket and go ask my Dad, he’ll know.”
“So would mine. I betcha stupid brothers never even knew pollywogs could have legs.”
Lisa filled the bucket with cloudy swamp water, and Karen dropped the creature into the pail. It was only after she saw it swimming around that she allowed her body to relax. “OK,” she sighed. “Let’s go show our dads, they’ll know the truth.”
It was over. The booty from the morning’s shopping trip to Baytown was scattered about the dining room until the den was ready. There were a few pieces of furniture that needed moving to one side, but aside from putting up the protective curtains and floor covers tomorrow, the hardest part was going to be the built-in bookshelves. Five large plastic totes stood ready to be filled with books, photo albums, and assorted decorative knick-knacks.
Karen’s low-level anxiety eased up some in the general excitement of the shopping trip. Who knew? Maybe they could put the photo albums away without looking at them. Those albums held the stark reminders of a time she tried so hard to forget.
Maybe, Karen considered, she had everything under control. Yesterday’s fuzzy but pleasant patchwork recollection had been benign enough. Maybe.
Because she was missing something, a vital connection that was as yet just out of mental reach.
Laci reached the collection of photo albums first. They were in one of the bookcases flanking the gas fireplace. She pulled a folio off the shelf, and said, “Karen, what are these? Picture albums?”
Karen looked over. “Yup, from back in the olden days when we dealt with real pictures instead of computer images.”
Laci opened the volume she’d taken down. Each page had six pictures covered with acetate sheets. The pictures were of strangers to Laci. “Who are these people?” she asked.
Karen pushed a wayward curl of hair back in place, and said, “I don’t know, honey. Let me look.” Karen finished what she was doing and came over to Laci.
Laci had the album opened and she studied the pictures protected by the acetate sheets. “These pictures are kinda old.”
Karen leaned over Laci’s shoulder. “Oh,” she said immediately, “Those are pictures of my grandfather.”
“Grampy Cy? The one who used to give you tractor rides?”
Karen smiled and nodded, “Yup, that’s the one, Grampy Cy.”
“Why Sigh, anyway?”
“Grampy Cy, short for Cyrus, his name.”
“Oh. Who are these other people?” Laci said, pointing vaguely at the pictures.
“Let’s see, well there’s my Mom and Dad, it looks like this was taken before I was born, so it must have been right after they got married.”
“Oh Karen,” Laci said, with a delighted smile and a gleam in her eye, “Your mother was so pretty in this picture.”
“She still is. She’s aged very gracefully, not that she’s all that old, she’s not, she turns sixty in a few months.”
“Your Dad’s handsome, too.”
“Yes he is, very handsome.”
“Did guys wear their hair that long back in them days?”
“Listen to you, ‘back in them days’. Them days were the 1970s, and yes, guys wore their hair long then, this would be right around the time the Vietnam War ended, the tail end of the Hippy era. You’ve listened to music from then, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones.” Karen chuckled suddenly. “I remember Grampy didn’t have much use for the hippies, or their music.” Karen dropped her voice a couple of octaves, and said, “Bunch goddamn lazy bastards sit around all day on their lazy asses, smokin’ dope and lookin’ for handout from the government, the world’s going to hell in a hand basket.” She returned her voice to its normal range. “And that’s what he thought of that.”
Laci giggled with delight. “I wish I could have known him, he sounds so cool. Is your Dad anything like him?”
“In some ways, but mostly no, Dad’s his own man. Oh, he worked every bit as hard as Grampy Cy did, Gramps wouldn’t tolerate any son of his not busting his ass sun-up to sun down, but my Dad wasn’t the type to need to be told to work, it’s in his blood. Gramp wasn’t one who really understood things like music and art. He once told me he didn’t need to see no damned pitcher on a wall to know what was beautiful. My Dad had broader ideas of beauty than Grampy – not better, just broader. One of the reasons he never made much of a fuss about loving classical music was because he knew Grampy would grumble about it, call a load of rich boy BS. But, much as he’d grumble about things, he was as soft as the middle of a poached egg. He always knew how to talk to me and make me feel better about things in a way that was… I don’t know, practical but very gentle and loving.”
Laci listened to Karen’s small ramble with attentive fascination. She sighed wistfully. “I wish I had a grandfather. Or even just a father.”
Karen gave Laci’s shoulder a squeeze. “I know baby.”
“I want to see some more pictures, I think they’re cool.”
For the next half an hour, they pored over album after album. Karen’s conscious mind was so occupied with remembering the good times that she let her guard down.
At last, they came to the albums of photos in which Karen herself was the center of the photographers’ attention, or at least a prominent participant. Laci became particularly animated. She took great pleasure in seeing Karen as a growing young girl, commenting frequently on how pretty Karen was.
When they opened an album containing pictures of her approaching puberty, Karen disregarded the goose walking over her grave, and the knot of anxiety in her gut suddenly surging and squirming.
Laci flipped the page and scanned the neatly arranged photos, and one in particular caught her eye. Karen and a very pretty girl about the same age had their arms around each other’s shoulders while they mugged for the camera. “Karen, who’s this girl?” Laci asked innocently enough.
“Wait, let me see, who?”
Laci pointed at the picture. “This one.”
Karen never expected it to hit so hard.
Karen looked at the picture, hesitated, looked at Laci, and the connection flashed in her brain like a lightning strike. Is this what it’s all about?
And with that, she started to lose control, and once started there was nothing she could do to stop it.
“Ummmm,” Karen said, struggling to find the words, but she was already falling headlong down her rabbit hole. “Ummm, she was, ummm, Lisa, my best friend when I was growing up,” was all she could manage.
“She’s pretty, really pretty.”
Karen looked at Laci again and that brought on the torrent. She sobbed and tears squirted out in a hot stream.
“Karen!” Laci cried, startled. “What’s the matter?” Her voice was tinged with alarm.
Karen continued to stare at the picture. She brought her trembling hand to her mouth, and groaned in the most heart rending way Laci had ever heard. “Karen, you’re scaring me! What’s the matter?”
Karen tried to collect herself. “It’s OK baby, I’m OK.” Karen looked up at Laci, and a fresh sob wracked her.
A vague, unfocused, but delightful excitement filled Karen as she and her best friend ever Lisa burst from the house and raced each other down the deck’s stairs onto the back lawn. It wasn’t yet nine o’clock, and already the air was hot and sultry, but Karen hardly noticed. Summer was now officially underway, and she and Lisa had the day to themselves.
Karen subconsciously understood this summer was the last time she could be a kid, carefree and unencumbered by the burdens of growing up. Even then, she sensed the moments of pure, unselfconscious childishness would be fleeting. The end of this summer marked the start of seventh grade, middle school, when school life became increasingly regimented and compartmentalized.
None of that mattered this sweltering day as she and Lisa bounded across the lawn toward the thick, overgrown meadow. Splotches of color splattered the tangled field as early summer wildflowers rose up and lifted their heads.
The two girls hopped and jumped into the sweet smelling hayfield, giggling as they went. Karen knew where they were going and she simply followed Lisa, who always seemed to know how to reach where they wanted to go. Neither girl had learned to be truly jaded yet, so they could run off chasing butterflies (“Flutter-byes,” Karen called them) and dragonflies as they made their unhurried way.
Who cared if it was childishly silly and ephemeral? It was summer, and they were truly best friends, preferring each other’s company to all others.
The way they looked at each other and interacted bespoke an unusual intimacy in their friendship, something that was quite sensual yet natural.
They plowed through the reluctant-to-yield hay, jumping and hopping when it was the only option, giggling all the while. Karen felt especially exuberant this day. It would be the last like this. Next weekend marked the beginning of the great migration to the lakeside summer camps, and they would still hang out together every day. Lisa’s family camp was a mere mile down the road from Karen’s, and a mile to an energetic twelve-year-old girl was no more than a brisk walk.
There would, however, be others intruding on their time together once at camp. Days where they could escape and just be by themselves, away from the throngs of cousins, other kids they knew from school, and others they did not know at all except as part of the camp mob, would be hard to come by.
So today had an unspoken and unacknowledged urgency to it. That urgency was pleasant for Karen. It hung in her midsection like a glowing orb. As they bounced through the hay, they set a nest of white moths a-scatter, and Karen cried in glee, “Lisa! Check out all the little butterflies.”
“Never mind the butterflies,” Lisa answered, gesturing broadly for Karen to come on. “I wanna catch a dragonfly and they’re down here by the swamp.”
In the spring, the area was truly a swamp, the small stream that cut through the meadow overflowing with run-off. But now, it was reduced to patches of mud and muck and small pools of water, and where the stream was more substantial, reed grass and cattails stood sentinel. On the other side of the mucky area, another swath of meadow sprawled out to a tree line. Each year it seemed the tree line grew further into the meadow.
“It’s all yucky over there,” Karen squealed.
“What, you turning into a big baby?” Lisa called back. “’Fraid of a little mud?”
“Who you calling a baby, I’m here, right?”
“But you’re whining about it.”
Putting an end to the questions, both girls stepped into muck at the same time, clean pink tennies instantly ruined. Karen laughed with delight. “I told you it was mucky,” and as if to prove her point her feet slurped when she lifted them.
“I don’t care, we’re almost where it gets swampy, that’s where the dragonflies are. Butterflies don’t come out until later, out in the field,” Laci said with an authority Karen couldn’t deny.
And so it went. Dragonflies turned out to be harder to catch than butterflies. In spite of their size, the creatures were agile. Both girls cried out whenever one of the insects came near her head, the fading childish legend that they sewed your mouth shut if you swore was still close enough to have some effect.
It was Karen, focused in on one seemingly sluggish specimen, who finally caught a dragonfly in her cupped palm. The insect buzzed frantically, making Karen squeal, “It’s gonna sting me!”
“No it is not,” Lisa retorted, and Karen relaxed as her friend drew close. “Let’s see,” Lisa said, “but be careful, don’t let it get away.”
Karen ever so carefully cracked open her cupped palms and both girls looked at the frantically buzzing creature. Karen’s squeamishness over holding the maddened insect faded, replaced by curiosity.
“Wow, it’s big,” Lisa proclaimed. “I wonder why they call it a dragonfly, it don’t look like a dragon or anything.”
Karen squinted at her quarry. “Maybe it’s a damselfly, my Dad says he uses fake damselflies when he goes fishing.”
Lisa shrugged as she studied the insect. “What’s the difference?”
“I dunno,” Karen. “Maybe one stings and the other doesn’t.”
“It hasn’t stung you yet, or you’d be crying like a baby.”
“No I would not,” Karen scoffed. “But it’s freaky the way it buzzes. I’m gonna let it go before it does sting me. You want it?”
“Not me,” Lisa said, stepping back. “I seen what I want to see.”
Karen carefully opened her hands, and the creature, whether dragonfly or damselfly, made its escape, immediately flying off in a huff to do whatever it was doing before its capture.
Lisa grabbed Karen’s hand and tugged. “C’mon, let’s go see if the butterflies are out yet.”
Off they went, two pretty young girls caught in that indeterminate but brief slice of time between childhood and puberty, still eager to romp through meadows and swamps chasing whatever caught their attention. Undeterred by the growing heat and humidity, they studied brightly colored wildflowers, and chased after the few butterflies they saw. They sloshed along the edges of the cattail thicket, red-winged blackbirds taking flight at the girls’ intrusion into their world.
They used last year’s cattails in a kind of pillow fight, swinging away while clouds of fluff filled the still, humid air like a snow flurry before landing and clinging to them wherever possible.
When they picked new specimens, Lisa said, “My brother Steve says you can eat cattails.”
“No way,” Karen scoffed. “How you gonna eat that? It’s all like cotton or something.”
“I’m not saying it’s true. You know my brothers, sometimes they lie, sometimes they tell the truth, so you never know if they’re making stuff up or not.”
“It might look like a fudgsicle, but I’m not gonna try eating it.”
Lisa’s face melted into a wicked grin. She swung her cattail and thumped Karen’s upper back. Laughing, she said, “But they sure are good for knocking some sense into you.”
The cattail fight was on. Squealing with delight, they chased each other, swinging their weapons but rarely connecting. The game came to an end when a spooked deer leapt up from its hiding spot in the swale grass, and bounded off, its white tail raised in alarm. They jumped into a startled embrace that lingered after the deer disappeared into the tree line. They were in constant physical contact of one sort or another, as if they were extensions of each other.
All the while, Lisa’s inner compass kept them from straying too far from their destination. They moved toward it slowly but inexorably.
The old shed was the slowly deteriorating remnant of what was once a place to store haying equipment during the summer months when these fields were still mown three times a season. They’d discovered it two summers before as they flitted about on their explorations. Late last summer, they’d begun to speak of it as their special hiding place, a place where they could safely retreat from the wider world. It was their unspoken destination all along.
Only one corner of the old shed still stood relatively intact. The rest of the structure had long since collapsed into a heap of grayed wood overrun with field weeds. An unruly blackberry patch, grew at the intact corner, its web of thorns demanding respect.
They were holding hands and laughing. They ducked under the shelter provided by the tangled bushes and the remnants of the old roof. It was pleasantly cooler out of the hot sun. “I hate wet feet,” Lisa grumbled as she pulled her mud stained tennies off.
“Me too,” Karen said as she pulled her own tennies off and set them on a broken beam so they might dry some in the sun. She felt the warmth in her midsection grow when she looked at her friend.
Lisa was a strikingly pretty girl. Her lithe and willowy body offered secret promises of delectability in times to come. Lisa usually let her long, honey colored hair with its wisps of natural surf curls go untamed. Her lips were full and lush, and her green eyes flashed with restless impetuosity.
Karen herself was a pretty girl, her body every bit as sleek and willowy as Lisa’s. Her hair, rather than the long, thick mane of her friend, was a nest of unruly curls forever falling over her eyes. Her brown eyes and lush mouth seemed to join forces to give Karen a vast repertoire of expressive smiles and frowns.
Together, they would surely make a formidable team for freshly hormonal boys to confront once the girls hit the fullness of puberty. Karen was aware of the expectation that dating boys was just around the corner. For the life of her, she simply could not grasp what was so special about boys. That must come with the still theoretical P word. Periods meant, she was assured, the onset of womanhood.
For now though, boys could be damned. It was Lisa who had her full attention, Lisa who was her best friend, Lisa who made her tummy feel warm and achy. At night, she often lay abed before sleep came, imagining both of them teaming up to effortlessly solve all of the world’s ills. There was no reason to believe anything would ever happen to rend them asunder. Karen was hardly the first naive prepubescent to believe childhood friendships, however strong, would last forever.
The first mutters of thunder were faint enough that they might be passed off as the rumble of an overloaded pulp truck on the road almost a mile away, but the western sky was blackening in the distance. Karen was beginning to feel antsy. “Maybe we oughta go back before it rains.”
Lisa grinned at her and gave her an elbow nudge. “What? You still chicken of thunderstorms?”
Karen squirmed uncomfortably. “I don’t like ‘em is all,” she muttered. “Beside, our folks might get worried.”
“You’re such a sissy,” Lisa teased, but her beautiful green eyes sparkled playfully, and she was smiling in a way that made Karen’s private area feel pleasantly squirmy.
“Am not,” Karen said without conviction, captured and held by her friend’s steady gaze.
“Don’t be a baby. We’ll stay dry here, and we’ll be together.” She subtly patted the spot of bare ground next to her, calling Karen closer.
“OK,” Karen sighed, and she slid over. Now the thunder was louder and unmistakable, and the black sky was laced with occasional streaks of quivering light. Suddenly Karen wasn’t sure if her heart was racing because of the storm, or because she was tucked up close to her friend. “You’ve got cattail thingies in your hair,” Karen observed.
“Want me to take them out?”
“I don’t have a comb or brush or anything.”
“That’s OK, I’ll pick them out with my fingers.”
“OK, if you want to.” Lisa said. She picked a stalk of grass and stuck it in her mouth and sat between Karen’s splayed legs.
Karen sighed softly. She’d always loved Lisa’s hair, even felt a bit jealous of it. It was long and thick, a golden color that seemed to radiate the light of the sun, and just as soft as a kitten’s fur. It had natural wisps of surf curls, a style that would be very desirable in a few years.
The thunder was still distant, the sun not yet hidden by the approaching storm clouds, and in no time, Karen lost herself in the wondrous feel of her friend’s silken tresses in her fingers as she carefully plucked the fuzzy seeds free.
Lisa’s eyes were closed and her face relaxed as her best friend groomed her hair. Not for the first time, Karen wondered what it would be like to kiss Lisa, and the thought intensified the warm glow in her girl parts, and that was a feeling she relished.
They talked as Karen stroked Lisa’s hair, talked about everything and nothing, the casual, easy small talk of girls who’d been almost inseparable since pre-school.
It was not lost on Karen that her friend’s breasts were becoming noticeable. Lisa had started her period in the spring, and Karen knew that meant Lisa would begin to change soon. Soon, but not quite yet.
A sharp bark of thunder made Karen jump and let out a startled yip. It was getting darker, and the flashes of lightning were more frequent and brighter, the thunder’s growls ever more menacing. Lisa took Karen’s hand in hers and said, “Maybe we better stretch out under the roof so we don’t get wet.”
The corner of the old shed sat firmly atop a smooth piece of granite ledge. The stone had a natural cup in it, big enough for them to lay side by side, and the remnants of the roof would keep them out of the rain. Karen’s heart thudded, whether from fear of the storm or the chance to lay close to her friend she neither knew nor cared.
“Don’t be afraid, silly,” Lisa said, but there was no teasing in her tone. “I’m right here with you.”
They stretched out, and Karen felt a surge inside. “I hate being such a baby.”
Lisa smiled affectionately and brushed the tip of the grass stalk over Karen’s cheek. “Don’t be silly, you know how scared I am of swimming and deep water and stuff, everybody’s got something silly they’re ‘fraid of. I’m here, you’re not alone.” Lisa tone was soothing, calm and tender.
Before Karen could say anything, the hair on her body seemed to stand up. Then came a great flash of crackling light as bright as a welder’s arc, and it was accompanied by a snapping, ripping, booming explosion so violent the ground shook. Karen screamed, and even Lisa jumped and yipped. Within seconds of the explosion, while it still boomed and echoed, a great gust of wind shushed over the meadow and shook the rickety structure. That was followed by the staccato pat-pat-pat of hailstones assaulting remnants of the shed. Then, another sizzling, crackling bolt of lightning, further away than the first one but still uncomfortably close, unleashed an explosion of thunder like a howitzer shell going off. This one summoned the rain, and the skies opened in a torrential deluge.
“Jeezum Crow!” Lisa cried with a mix of delight and awe. “That’s fricken incredible!”
In spite of the violence of the storm, the two girls were safe and dry from the fall of water and hailstones. “Wow!” Karen said in a low voice. “I wonder if it’s gonna tornado or something, like the Wizard of Oz.”
“Yeah, I wonder where our Oz would be.”
“I’d rather not find out,” Karen said, giggling nervously.
Apropos of nothing, Lisa shifted so she was on her side facing Karen, her head propped on her hand. “You know, that cousin of yours, Jeremy, he’s a gross pig,” she said.
“He doesn’t belong to me,” Karen said in defense. “Why’s he a gross pig?”
“Cause he’s always trying to act all cool and mature, trying to impress me, like he wants to make out or something. That is just so gross.”
“Ewww,” Karen agreed, and the image was in fact troublesome. “He’s a guy, so I guess that pretty much explains it.”
Maybe it was the storm and its electric energy, but Lisa seemed willing to push the limits of the vague social rules governing the always-mysterious subject of sexuality and relationships. “You ever made out with anybody?” Lisa challenged.
“Me? Not hardly, who am I gonna make out with? Not gross Jeremy.”
“We’ll have to someday.”
They looked at each other, bodies silently drawn together like filings to a magnet, on the verge, yet neither girl dared pull the trigger. Trying a different tack, Lisa suddenly said with authority, “You know what I think is wicked stupid?”
“No, what do you think is wicked stupid,” Karen sighed. “Besides Jeremy,” she added with a laugh.
“I think it’s wicked stupid that two girls can’t be in love together. What’s up with that? Who says we can only be in love with stupid boys? What fricken business is it of anyone?”
Karen’s heart thudded and flip-flopped and her tummy seemed to do a free-fall. She understood Lisa’s question wasn’t an idle one, but how was she supposed to react? Her mouth felt cottony. At last, she muttered, “Yeah, we should get to be in love with whoever we want.” She mentally kicked herself for offering such a lame answer.
Lisa was on a mission and she would not be denied. “We should get to make out with whoever we want, boys, girls. You ever wonder what it’s like?” Now Lisa’s eyes glowed. “Making out? Kissing and stuff?”
Don’t screw it up this time, Karen admonished herself. “Yeah, I have. Thought about it, not done it.”
Lisa eyes sparkled impishly. “Wanna try it? Kinda like practice?”
Karen wanted to explode inside, but she feigned indifference. She shrugged and said, “Yeah, that might be cool, that way we won’t look, like, totally clueless the first time we do it for real.”
They both giggled as they slowly, hesitantly came together. Their lips met in an awkward connection. Both girls kept their mouths closed and pushed. They were breathing hard. It was Lisa who parted her lips first, and they both accidentally came together in a real kiss.
“It’s kinda nice,” Lisa said. “No wonder people like it.”
Lisa’s face was radiant, and to Karen she was the single most beautiful person imaginable. They brought their mouths together with force, both of them squirming their bodies, trying to press as close to the other as possible.
Karen’s insides throbbed and surged with a newfound intensity, and it was the most wonderful, most scary sensation she’d ever felt. It kept growing until she was whimpering. Their hands unconsciously roamed over each other, tentative, uncertain, and hesitant.
Something was going to happen inside Karen, something both awesome and terrifying, and it was irresistible. It scared her, but not enough to make her stop kissing Lisa. Any pretense of practice kissing had been lost in the heat of the moment.
Both girls panted and made whining noises without realizing it. Their hands hesitantly but inexorably moved toward other parts.
The thunder grew fainter as the heart of the storm moved away, but the rain still came in torrents. Above them, unseen, rainwater pooled in cup formed when boards bent under the weight of many seasons. The collected water was straining the boards forming the cup. As slowly as the minute hand on an old clock, the boards began to sag.
Without warning, the wood gave way. A sudden deluge of icy water dropped down on Karen and Lisa. The shock smothered their ardor as quickly as it would a camp fire. Both girls involuntarily screamed out in shock. Karen had no idea at first what had happened.
“What the hell…” Lisa cried out in a near squeal.
Karen simply screeched.
They both got up, drenched, looking like a pair of drowned dogs. They bent over, automatically trying to shake the water off.
It was Lisa who started laughing first. A small giggle rapidly swelled into a full on laugh. The rain continued apace, pelting the shelterless girls. Karen wasn’t sure what was going on, but Lisa’s laugh was infectious. She looked up at her gleeful friend, and she suddenly grasped the craziness of it all. Her giggle rose to a laugh.
“Let it rain!” Lisa cried at the gray sky. She grabbed Karen by the hand, and dragged her into the open meadow.
Karen broke free of Lisa’s grasp and they both gleefully danced in the rain and the dripping wet meadow grass. Lisa turned her face skyward and spread her arms out, laughing, “Let it rain, let it rain!”
Their dance, like two nymphs frolicking around Apollo, was filled with exuberant exultation. They bound, and spun, fell down, got up, whooped and sang. They grabbed each other’s hands and danced in a bouncing circle, while Lisa sang out, “Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies.”
The meadow grass, assaulted by both the torrential rain and Karen and Lisa’s gleeful dance of exultation, laid flat. “Isn’t this so awesome?” Karen squealed.
“Perfect, perfect, perfect,” Lisa sang. “I’m so soaked and I don’t even care!”
They embraced and continued their dance even as the rain tapered, the clouds broke up, and the sun returned. “Look!” Lisa squealed, pointing at the retreating storm clouds. A rainbow spanned from horizon to horizon.
“Ohmygod,” Karen cried, jumping up and down and clapping her hands. “It’s beautiful, Lisa! Look at it, I never seen such a beautiful rainbow before!”
“Oh yeah, it’s fricken awesome!” She grabbed Karen in an embrace, and they hugged long and hard, rocking back and forth. Karen’s insides hummed with a great and wonderful energy. I could be in love with her, Karen thought over and over. Life stretched before them, filled with possibilities, and Karen had never been so happy. This was indeed a magic place.
At last, the sun was back in all its glory, and the birds returned from their shelters. Lisa said, “We better get back. I bet my Mom’s having a cow!”
Karen reluctantly let the moment slip away. Lisa was right. “Yeah, I guess.”
The girls slipped on their soaked tennies, and when they stood up, Lisa pinched Karen and offered an mischievous smile. “Race ya!” and she flew off through the grass.
“Hey,” Karen cried. “No fair, I can’t run as fast as you.”
Lisa stopped and stuck her tongue out at Karen. “Nyah, nyah!”
Karen took off as fast as she could. Lisa bogged down in the muck, while Karen seemed to find a smoother path, but it was no use. She’d never catch her laughing, nimble friend.
When Lisa burst through the grass marking the rear border of her yard, she stopped and waited the few seconds for Karen to catch up. Without saying anything, the girls threw their arms around each other’s shoulders. They both looked back one final time from whence they came, before they skipped across the lawn, singing spontaneous tunes.
They were best friends, and the whole summer lay before them like an untapped cornucopia.
Laci was completely taken aback by Karen’s sudden descent into heart-rending, uncontrollable weeping. It terrified her. Karen was the rock, the Adult In Charge. To see her like this was a shock to Laci’s newfound sense of the world and how it worked.
She felt an overwhelming need to do something, say something that would right the ship, but she had no idea what that might be. Still Laci was hardly without her own inner strengths. She knew she needed to step up and stop with the ineffectual pleas of, “You’re scaring me.” They weren’t doing any good, and Karen needed her help.
She hooked her arm through Karen’s armpit and lifted. “Come on Karen,” she said in as firm a voice as possible. “Stand up and come with me.”
Karen stood willingly enough from where she sat hunched over the desk sobbing. She wobbled a bit, but as soon as Laci snatched a wad of paper towels from the roll they’d been using to clean with, she wrapped an arm around Karen’s waist to steady her. “Come with me.”
Karen seemed to make an effort to compose herself, and she didn’t resist Laci guiding her into the living room and the big sofa. It didn’t seem like much, but it was all Laci could think to do. “Lay down,” Laci said, her voice strong yet soothing.
Karen saw the wad of paper towels in Laci’s hand. She took it and blew her nose hard again and again. For a brief moment, Laci thought Karen might be regaining her composure. She looked at Laci for a second, maybe two, before she dissolved into a fresh wave of sobs. She lay down, curling toward the fetal position, hands tucked under her face and head. “Hold me,” she pleaded in a small, dismal voice. “Please baby. Just hold me.”
Laci lay on sofa facing Karen. She wriggled close and held the woman she loved.
It was nearly six o’clock when Karen and Lisa went their separate ways, each skipping off as if they were still seven year old kids. “See you tomorrow,” Lisa called with a wave.
“Bye!” Karen called back.
It was two weeks after the thunderstorm, an ordinary summer night, though hotter and more humid than most, and there wasn’t as much as a whisper of a breeze to cut the heavy air. Supper, such as it was, consisted of Italian sandwiches Dad picked up on his way home from work. When the meal was finished, Karen grabbed the book she’d been reading, Annie Proulx’s “Heart Songs,” and headed for the dock. When she asked her Dad to buy it for her, he did so willingly, but he gave her a fleeting, admiring glance, and said, “That’s a pretty grown up book, sure you’re ready for it?”
Karen simply rolled her eyes, clucked her tongue, and said, “Dad, I’m almost in seventh grade now, I can’t keep reading kids’ books forever.”
He gave her head an affectionate pat and flashed her a wink. She was Daddy’s little girl. She adored him. He was her rock, calm, unflappable, smart beyond measure, protective, her image of what men should be.
Truth be told, she was captivated by the book’s short stories, even though she didn’t quite get all of them. It was Proulx’s voice that held her attention, just as it was the melody in a Mozart piano concerto that held her. She plunked herself down on the end of the dock, dangled her feet in the tepid water and opened the book to where she’d carefully slipped in the bookmark (Mom had taught her to never dog-ear a book’s page to mark her place; it bordered on a sacrilege).
Karen paused a few seconds as she let her mind open itself. She was only just becoming reacquainted with the ebb and flow of summer life on the lake. Off to her left visible through a thin swath of fir trees was the camp belonging to her Uncle Sonny, complete with its own dock. Her cousin Jeremy, two years older and seemingly obsessed with more adult pleasures, stood at the end of the dock desultorily casting a fishing line into the water, the ripples of the baited hook the only thing disturbing the glass calm of the water’s surface.
From further down came the delighted squeals of her younger cousins splashing about, and truth be told, the lure of joining them was strong, but “Heart Songs” were equally melodious, and besides, the thought of Jeremy leering at her sealed the deal.
To her right, the scruffy, vaguely dangerous members of the Hyatt clan buzzed about in their outboard boats. Further off to the right, the setting sun hung like an iron ball fresh from a forge over the ridgeline forming the back wall of the lake’s natural bowl. The waxing gibbous moon was up well above the horizon, though still a vague silver dollar in the sun’s light.
Oppressive yet vaguely comforting, the close summer air wrapped Karen like a blanket. She sighed contentedly, and looked at her open book.
Karen hardly looked up from the book over the next two hours. When she finally did, it was only because Jeremy had hucked a dirt clod in her direction. “Gettin dark, gonna roon your eyes you keep readin in the dark,” he offered sagely.
Karen worked out a kink in her neck. “Do you sign up to get stupid junk like that mailed to you?” she retorted. It was well into twilight, and the sun relinquished the sky to the moon. Boats and kids were out of the water for another day, and the surface of the lake once again went as smooth as plate glass.
“You’re a smart-ass,” Jeremy said as he hucked another dirt clod at Karen.
“Yup, I am.” Karen bounded up the natural steps formed by the exposed roots of the fir trees to the camp. How could anyone find boys interesting, she mused? They were mostly stupid and crude, fascinated by farting and belching and trying to impress girls by acting like assholes.
Fans scattered about the open common area of the camp did nothing to cool things off. Rather than stew over it, Karen simply fell into her summer evening ritual; a small bowl of ice cream (strawberry) and a can of Diet Pepsi, diaphoretic in the humid air, followed by a cooling shower.
There was no question, the lukewarm shower was the perfect end to a hot summer day. Karen stepped under the powerful spray and took her time before lathering up. Her hair shampooed and rinsed, she soaped up a washcloth and drew it over her sleek form. Hers was still the body of a child. She longed to experience the changes Lisa was undergoing. Soon, she thought, pretty soon.
Karen carefully ran her soapy hand over her sex and sighed. It was such a wonderful sensation, a tugging on a magic chain that ran into secret places hidden from view. She let the water rinse the soap from her hand. Getting too much soap there might cause an infection, or so the rumor went. Now she wasn’t as hesitant about exploring a little more, nothing serious.
Karen had long since stopped mulling over why touching her girl parts conjured images of Lisa, of the two of them chasing each other, hugging and dancing, at last kissing. Why it was so didn’t, at least then, matter very much.
It was simply too hot to sleep, even uncovered and with the fan blowing right on her. How in God’s name her mother and father could sleep was beyond her. Karen sat on the edge of her bed and pulled on her tennies. A walk might help. She stepped out on the deck and looked out over the lake.
There still wasn’t as much as a whisper of a breeze. Unsullied by even a single ripple, the moon’s ghostly gray reflection on the surface of the lake was pure. Karen glanced up at the moon’s shadowy face, looking as if it was peaking around a corner, and a shudder passed over her almost unnoticed.
It seemed as if there was some sort of commotion up the lake and out of view, closer to Lisa’s camp. Karen shrugged and skipped down the steps and made her way to the dirt camp road.
She didn’t have a place in mind; fireflies winked and stuttered over the high meadow grasses, while crickets chirped languidly, and the moon’s sepulchral glow lighted paths almost as well as the dawn’s sun.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Lisa were with her right now, Karen mused? In the depths of night, perhaps they’d even dare to hold hands. Maybe – just maybe – they’d slip into a secret embrace, and just as with the magic day of the thunderstorm, they’d come together in a kiss…
Karen’s heart sped up at the wantonness of her fantasy, her girl parts clenched like a fist, and a nest of butterflies was loosed in her tummy. She plucked a stalk of timothy and stuck it in her mouth in unconscious imitation of Lisa.
It was obvious something was going on down the lake. It was impossible to overlook the ominous glow of strobing blue and red police lights. Obviously, the Hyatt’s were up to their tricks, perhaps a drunken argument evolved into brawl, she’d get all the details from Lisa in the morning.
Now, her stroll through the cool meadow left her feeling pleasantly drowsy. At last, it was time to head back to the camp, to sleep, perchance to dream.
It immediately struck Karen as odd when she rolled out of bed at nine o’clock and Daddy hadn’t left for work yet. Truth be told, he looked pale, almost ashen. He must have a flu bug or something, Karen thought. “Daddy, how come you’re not at work?” she said through a yawn.
He hardly looked up from the almost empty coffee cup in front of him. He took a deep breath and let it out in an anguished sigh. “Sit down, pumpkin; I need to talk to you about something.”
That was when Karen felt the first squirt of fear in her tummy. Her heart speeded up, her mouth went dry, and her legs began to tremble. What was going on? Was she in trouble? Did she do something bad without knowing it? “Daddy, what’s the matter?” she said, her voice going up an octave and edged with fear. “Did I do something wrong?”
He looked up and she saw tears in his eyes, which unto itself was terrifying. Whatever it was, it was serious, really serious. “No honey, you didn’t do anything wrong.”
Her mother moved behind her now. “Tell me what’s going on,” she cried out, panic edging closer to the surface. Now she thought she might pass out.
“Ummm, last night,” Daddy said, his voice not much more than a whisper, “around midnight, Lisa and her bothers decided to sneak out and use the canoe to go on the lake and cool off. Well, something happened, not sure what, but the boat tipped over, and… and… Lisa drowned. Her brothers tried to save her, but they couldn’t do anything.”
An enormous pang pulsated through Karen. “No,” she said, shaking her head. “That’s not true,” she said, her voice high and quavery. “That’s a mean trick to play on me.”
“I’m afraid it’s not a trick, honey. I wish it were.”
“But it can’t be true, we hung out together yesterday, and we’re going to hang out again today. She promised.”
And with that, Karen’s young, comfortably ordered world began its collapse into a smoking heap of rubbish. She was dimly aware she was screaming.
Such a thing could not be. It was impossible. Her insides screamed in agony, hot surges rocking her.
Somewhere during her rage, Daddy had picked her up and he was carrying her, patting her back and trying to soothe her, trying to take the edge off her shock. “No, no,” she cried. “She can’t be dead, she’s my best friend! No! She’s too young to be dead! Please Daddy, tell me it’s a joke, tell me it’s not true.”
Her Daddy took a deep, shuddery breath, utterly nonplussed and at a loss for the right words to say to his daughter as her world imploded. He was a man of few words in the best of circumstances. He was clearly fighting to hold back his own tears, distraught at being unable to find the magic words that might ease his daughter’s agony. Such words simply did not exist.
Karen’s mother wept freely, sobbing at her daughter’s anguish, at the senseless death of a child on the cusp of life. The cruel indifference of life slapped all of them.
Karen’s brain was limping along, circuits overloaded by the suddenness of the tragedy, perhaps trying to protect itself by filtering out everything except what was absolutely necessary to function. At some point, she grabbed the teddy bear off the shelf over her bed and clutched it tightly.
The teddy bear was a gift from Lisa. They were at the mall one day, bright and cheerful in a happier time, and Lisa bought it on a whim from one of the kiosks dotting the landscape. Once purchased, Lisa had no idea what to do with it. She claimed she hadn’t really wanted it; it was an impulse buy, a joke, pure and simple.
Lisa grinned and jabbed the bear into Karen’s midsection. “Here. Don’t say I never got you anything.”
“What do I want with a teddy bear,” Karen protested. “Do I look like a little kid or something?”
Lisa had that impish glint in her eyes. “Maybe, but now it’s yours. You hafta take it ‘cause it’s a present from me to you.”
“Gee, thanks a million, just what I always wanted, a little kid’s teddy bear.”
“Not a problame-o, lame-o.”
But now, the bear had a special significance all out proportion to its original purpose.
Sobbing and moaning, Karen curled into the fetal position and held the bear close. How could it be that Lisa was dead? It made no sense. They’d just hung out together yesterday, and now, now, Lisa was gone? And not for a few days. Forever.
Now she understood what the strobing police lights meant last night, and it wasn’t the Hyatts getting into a brawl. It was people searching the waters for her best friend, hoping against hope that she might yet be rescued.
Karen’s brain clamped down on that line of thought, pushed it aside for the time being. In fact, most of the next three days would be forcefully relegated to the deepest vaults of Karen’s mind.
As devastated as Karen was over her best friend’s sudden, shocking death, she vaguely realized Lisa’s brothers’ agony surely was infinitely worse. It was they who’d talked their little sister into going for a midnight canoe ride to escape the heat; it was her brothers who thought it would be funny to scare their little sister by rocking the canoe and teasing her; it was her brothers who, in a prank gone horribly wrong, tipped the canoe over, spilling Lisa into tepid water — Lisa who wasn’t wearing a life jacket, Lisa who wasn’t a good swimmer, Lisa who panicked in the water, thrashing madly, groping for her brothers to pull her to safety, Lisa who’s thrashing made it impossible for her brothers to reach her before she slipped under the water, gone forever. It was Lisa’s brothers who would relive that mad, frantic two minutes over and over for the rest of their lives, in a kind of emotional purgatory.
Karen’s mother and father gave her the space she needed to work through her grief, but they kept a wary eye on her lest she do something foolish like try to join her friend in death. Grief counselors from school were still a decade away, leaving Karen to make do on her own.
Karen sat at the end of the dock, her feet dangling in the water, watching the moon rise from behind the ridgeline. There was a tiny breeze this night, just enough to cause ripples that broke the moon’s reflection into a thousand shimmering lights on the water’s surface. She had no idea what time it was, only that it was dark. Karen held the teddy bear in a tight embrace, and she wept quietly.
She looked up at the moon and offered her plea. Why? Why did you hafta die, Lisa? Why? You were my best friend. I coulda fallen in love with you, and now you’re… gone. Forever. Was it something I did? Was it because we hugged and kissed that day of the thunderstorm? Is God punishing us for hugging and kissing and feeling those things? We’re not even teenagers yet, how are we s’pose to know these things. How can it be a real and true thing that you’re… dead?
The moon, its head cocked to one side, its mouth a silent, ghostly O, did not answer her questions.
Karen hugged the teddy bear tighter than ever. Why din’t you get me to go with you? I woulda saved you, you know that, don’t you? I woulda saved you no matter what, or I’da died with you, but I wasn’t there, I shoulda been, but I wasn’t, and I’m sorry, really I am.”
Without conscious thought, Karen stood up. She didn’t see her father on the deck, keeping a vigil, ready to jump if needed. A deep, heavy ache settled in the pit of her stomach. Her face was wet with tears, and every breath she drew came with a shudder or a sob. She climbed up the slope from the water’s edge, past the camp cabin, and onto the dirt camp road. Just as last night, the light from the moon was bright and almost funereal.
Karen stood for a moment, looking at the path she made on last night’s moonlit walk. The same fireflies floated in the warm, humid air, the same crickets chirped, and the air was redolent of the same sweet, earthy aroma of fresh grass and wildflowers.
She made her way through the grass, the stalks shushing on the fabric of her shorts. Karen stopped at the spot where she stood last night and hugged the teddy bear. There were no strobing police lights, no commotions on this sultry night. Just silence, silence as heavy as death, broken only by Karen’s soft sobs.
Karen stood as still as a statue, staring at the doorframe leading to the viewing room. She’d already been to the visiting hours last night – how strange, how cruel a term, “visiting hours” – but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to see Lisa laid out in the casket. No, that was something she could not do.
Until now. Now she had to say goodbye. She’d never be able to live with herself if she didn’t.
Karen held the teddy bear with one hand, and in the other, a stalk of timothy, a wild rose, and secretly, a curled lock of her hair.
“You OK kitten?” It was Daddy, and his strong hand on her shoulder gave her strength.
Karen drew in a shuddery breath and nodded quickly. She didn’t remember the walk into the room, didn’t remember the other people stepping back as if they knew she was supposed to be alone with her friend one last time.
When she opened her eyes, everything was blurry and indistinct until she blinked and cleared the tears. She let out an anguished moan, and her legs trembled and threatened to collapse.
There were display boards flanking the casket like sentries, each covered with pictures of happy times. A low voice inside Karen’s mind said, You’re in half those pictures, you know. The casket was white and the brass embellishments seemed to sparkle. The casket was in the embrace of dozens of floral arrangements, many with roses, Lisa’s favorite flower. The focal point was the large portrait of Lisa, last year’s school picture. Karen had an 8x10 framed in her bedroom at home. Lisa scribbled on the back, “To the bestest friend ever!! You rock!! Luv Lisa XOXOX.”
She didn’t remember walking up to the casket, but she remembered seeing Lisa’s lifeless form nestled in the casket’s white lace cushions. Karen’s inner voice was almost hysterical. She’s supposed to look like she’s sleeping, but she doesn’t, she looks DEAD! At that, Karen’s legs buckled at last.
Daddy’s strong hands kept her from collapsing onto the floor. He very subtly but very firmly made sure Karen’s knees found the padded rail. When he was sure she wouldn’t fall to the floor, he took several steps back so Karen could have her private good bye. There was no one else in the room.
Overhead, music flowed softly from hidden speakers. She knew the music, she’d heard it before on a drive with Daddy, but there was no name attached to it, beautiful but inexpressibly sad.
Karen wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. Lisa’s parents were Catholic; they wanted her dressed in her beautiful white Easter dress. Her folded hands held a small crucifix, and one wrist was adorned with the charm bracelet she liked so much.
Karen reached her trembling hand, still clutching the rose, the stalk of timothy and the lock of her hair, and touched Lisa’s hair, and yes, it was as soft as it was on that magic day. Karen laid her cheek on the edge of the casket and looked at her friend while she twirled a strand of Lisa’s hair.
“Lisa,” Karen whispered. “Don’t leave me, please! Why? Why did you go in that canoe? Was it ‘cause the moon was so bright? Oh Lisa, God, please. Are you being punished ‘cause we hugged and kissed and danced? Oh god! You’re the bestest friend ever, please tell me this isn’t real, please tell me you ran away somewhere. It’s not fair! It’s! Not! Fair!” Karen took a deep breath and let it out in a harsh sob.
Karen shifted herself so she could get close enough to whisper in Lisa’s ear. “I thought about giving you the teddy bear to take with you, but I can’t do it, I need her. You gave her to me, and I need her, but I got you a rose from that bush you like so much, the one where you got stung by the bee, ‘member that? An’ you didn’t even cry.” Karen tenderly nestled the rose into Lisa’s hair, and a firm inner voice told her no one would disturb the rose.
“An’ I got you some hay to chew on, ‘member how you always do that? An’ I got you something else. I cut one of my curls off so you could take it with you, so you’ll have a piece of me with you.” Karen secretly pushed the lock of hair under Lisa’s shoulder so no one would see it take it away.
Karen’s moan was one of unspeakable pain. The storm inside her was getting ready to break, just as the thunderstorm broke atop them that day. There would be no more of those magical days.
A primal part of Karen’s brain sensed her Daddy coming up behind her, and she knew what that meant. Karen straightened herself enough so she could lean over and plant a kiss on her friend’s cheek, her tears dropping on Lisa’s silent form.
When Daddy touched the top of her head, Karen sobbed harshly. She didn’t whisper when she cried out, “Lisa! I coulda loved you, an’ I know you woulda loved me back!”
Karen’s heart raced like a cornered rabbit. She knew what time it was.
Daddy squatted down and touched her. “Come kitten.” The part of Karen’s brain still functioning recognized the painful quiver in Daddy’s voice.
Karen whipped herself around. “Why?” she demanded loudly. “Daddy! Tell me why she hadda die? Daddy, she wasn’t bad! Why? It’s not fair! Why can’t anybody tell me why she hadda die?”
Daddy gathered her into his strong arms and any semblance of control disappeared. Karen squirmed and tried to break away. “No! No! Please! I don’t want her to go! She’s my bestest friend!” When Daddy had her securely in his grip, he stood up.
When Daddy turned, she was facing the casket and her friend for the last time. “No!” she cried, squirming. “No! Please!” At last, she cried out her friend’s name in a high, keening lamentation, “Liiiiissssaaaaaa! Noooo, please! Liiiisssaaaa!”
With each of Daddy’s steps, she was further away from her friend. When Daddy reached the door, Lisa disappeared from her view, and Karen’s soul crumbled. She went limp in her Daddy’s arms, and her agonized sobs announced to all who heard that the destruction of her childhood was complete.
It seemed to Laci as if Karen’s well of tears would not run dry. Karen, sobbing and snuffling, clung to her as if buffeted by a gale. As insignificant as simply holding Karen might seem, Laci knew it was exactly the right thing to do; no poking or prodding; no attempts to fix things; just held so she’d know she was loved.
Laci felt a sense of satisfaction that she was able to step up when the situation demanded it, and handle a crisis like an adult. She didn’t know many lullabies, and those she did she knew imperfectly, but she remembered enough of the unicorn and “Hush Little Baby” tunes to hum them. Just that was enough to soothe both of them.
While she cuddled as close as she could, Laci tried to make some sense out of what was happening. Truth be told, it never occurred to her Karen might have things from her past that she didn’t want to remember. Laci herself had any number of ugly things from her past she’d just as soon forget, but Karen?
It had something to do with the girl in the picture, and Laci didn’t even know her name. Up until then, Karen was her usual happy self, seeming to take great pleasure in reminiscing and talking about the pictures of her family. Then came the picture.
Karen stared at it in silence for a few seconds, as if stunned. Then she looked up at Laci, and seemed to study her before looking down again. When she looked up this time her eyes were filled with an anguish that stabbed Laci’s heart. It was a look that would haunt Laci’s art for a long time.
Whatever it is, it hurts her bad, and I’m not a little kid anymore, so I need to stop acting like one and be here for her, just like she is for me. She needs me to be strong for her, just like she’s strong for me, that’s part of what it means to be in love with someone, being there for each other, not falling to pieces and being like a little kid. But it’s scary to see Karen like this, she’s always so strong.
It was not lost on Laci how she had her own picture of Karen with her arm around a girl, the one where she so careful excised Amy from the shot so it would be just her and Karen.
It took a good fifteen minutes for Karen’s sobs to taper to sniffles. She held onto Laci as if she were a rescue ring in a stormy sea. At last, she loosened her grip. “I’m sorry baby,” she whispered. “I need to get my act together.”
Laci relinquished her hold on Karen so she could sit up. She worked herself into the corner of the sofa, and Laci instinctively curled up in her lover’s lap. It was, she sensed, exactly what she needed to do.
“I’m sorry,” Karen said again, and blew her nose. “That girl in the picture with me,” she continued, her words punctuated by shaky breaths, residual sobs, and pauses to blow her nose. “Her name was Lisa, and she was my best friend growing up. We’d been best friends since pre-school. The summer we were twelve, she died, drowned in a boat accident on the lake where we had camps to stay at during the summer. I took it really hard, and I was on my own — there were no such thing as school grief counselors, I was pretty much left to deal with it by myself. Funny, but the only one who really seemed to get it was Grampy Cy. Anyway, I guess the way I dealt with it was to push it away, deep inside, and try to forget about it.”
“Oh Karen,” Laci cried, and there was a lurch in her heart. “That is so awful! Ohmygod, I can’t imagine something like that. No wonder you cried!”
“I hadn’t thought about her in years and years, at least not directly.” Karen stared blankly at her hands. “Seeing that picture, it just brought it all back. That was the worst summer of my life, but parts of it, before she died, were wonderful. We had so much fun together. I’m sorry baby. Now that it’s out I’ll feel better.”
Laci looked at Karen, her expression a mix of pain and love. She simply nuzzled her face in Karen’s bosom. “I love you, you know.”
“Yes baby, I know that, and I don’t know if I can ever explain how much that means to me.”
Karen had a hard time even looking at the lake, never mind bringing herself to go in the water. She was a strong swimmer, where Lisa never got the hang of it. They used to joke about it. Lisa was OK as long as her head stayed above water when her feet were planted.
Secretly, when they were behind closed doors, or out in the fields away from everyone and it was safe for them to tell their secrets to each other, Lisa would pout and say, “I feel so stupid that I can’t swim.”
“Don’t feel stupid,” Karen would answer while savoring the warm glow in her tummy she always felt when she was alone with Lisa. “I can’t run fast, and I don’t feel stupid, an’ I always lose at Tag or Hide ‘n’ Seek.”
Lisa would sigh, clearly unable to refute Karen’s logic yet not reassured by it. Instead, when they were at lake they contented themselves wading and squishing their toes in the mooshy remnants of last year’s leaf fall, and keeping watch over the younger kids.
Now at night, she felt a strange compulsion to sit on the end of the dock and look out over the lake, the teddy bear nestled in the crook of her arm, and pine for her friend. She’d sit on the dock whenever the waning moon was visible, and curse it. “Yeah, go ahead and keep going away to hide, you bastard,” Karen would whisper harshly. “It’s your fault for bein’ so bright, and now you only hide an’ peek out to laugh at me.”
The end of the hot, muggy weather was heralded one evening when the moon was a waning crescent — God’s thumbnail, Grampy called it – by a thunderstorm, which came barreling over the ridge, charging down the lake in a fury.
Normally, unless she was with Lisa, thunderstorms made her edgy and nervous. But not this time. No, it brought back wonderful yet terrible memories with a stark clarity that was simply unbearable. She silently padded into the camp, and curled up on her bed, the teddy bear nestled close to her, and wept silently while images of the magical day tormented her.
The day after the storm dawned bright, crisp, and even a little cool. Normally it would be a day for exploring the fields and woods, fishing, and, for the older cousins, doing chores for Grampy. Karen tried to eat breakfast, but she had no appetite. She plopped down in front of the TV with the teddy bear and watched reruns of “Ren and Stimpy,” “Doug” and “Rug Rats” on Nickelodeon.
Her mother, who worked as the office manager for Daddy’s growing general contracting business, was becoming worried enough about Karen that she stayed behind each morning until she was reasonably sure Karen was functional. “Karen honey,” she called. “I have to go to work now. You OK?”
By rote, Karen answered, “I’m fine Mom.” But she wasn’t fine. Her world was now was little more than a thick, oppressive fog. She was enveloped by apathy, functioning by rote.
There were memories of the day of the thunderstorm, of their final weeks hanging out together, and worst of all, horrifying visions of how it must have been out on the lake. Those visions stabbed her like a spear, and left her mewling aloud in anguish.
Without much conscious thought, she got up from in front of the TV and left the house. She had no destination in mind, just a vague, inarticulate need to move. Dressed in pink shorts, a unicorn t-shirt, and flip-flops, she made her way to the camp road and started walking aimlessly on the road away from the lake. A mile or two on, the camp road emptied onto the two-lane rural state route just down from Grampy’s house, with its detached barn and garage where he repaired and sold all manner of farm and logging equipment. Karen’s listless steps carried her in that direction, away from the lake.
She hadn’t gone far when she crossed paths with her cousin Jeremy. Because he was two years older than her, he thought that meant he could boss her around, as if age alone bestowed certain privileges. “Hey, where you going?” he called, running to catch up with her.
Karen shrugged. “Nowhere. Leave alone Jeremy.”
“Jeezum crow, none of us is happy. Her brother Steve, my friend, he keeps saying it’s his fault, he kilt her.”
Karen didn’t want to hear Jeremy’s lame attempts to make her feel better. She stopped dead in her tracks, holding her teddy bear in one hand, the other hanging down, her fingers twitching ominously. Rising up suddenly from somewhere deep inside was an irrational, white hot anger. She instinctively checked it, but her breathing grew rapid, her heart began to pound like a jackhammer, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up. “Jeremy,” she said, her voice low and measured. “I said, leave me alone. I’m not kidding.”
“Look, I ain’t trine to be a jerk or anything, I don’t wanna see you sufferin’ or anything. Jeezum crow.”
Now her anger erupted. “I said!” she screamed with a force that left Jeremy looking stunned, “Leave! Me! Alonnnnne!” Karen dropped the bear and quickly gathered up stones and pebbles from the dirt road, and she began hurling them at Jeremy as hard as she could.
“Hey!” Jeremy cried out, instinctively flinching. “Cut it out! No fair throwin’ rocks.”
Karen didn’t let up. As quickly as she could fling them and replenish her stock, she hurled the rocks. Several plunked her cousin, the stones bouncing off his body. He cried out in alarm, shock, and pain, and began retreating.
Karen had never felt such a boiling, burning, irrational anger before. In the heat of her outrage, she hurled the most deadly swear she knew, one she’d never before uttered anywhere but the solitude of her room during sleepovers with friends. “Fuck! You! Leave me the fuck alone!” she screeched, still flinging rocks and chasing after her perceived tormenter.
Keeping instinctively scrunched up, Jeremy ran down a path leading to grampy’s house to escape Karen’s assault. When he disappeared down the path, Karen stopped at the edge of the road. “I tol’ you to leave! Me! The fuck alone!” she screeched one final time.
Karen stood at the edge of the road, looking down the path but not seeing anything except the crimson waves of her anger. Her face was flushed, her breathing harsh and rapid, and her fist hung at her side, clenching and unclenching.
It seemed like an hour passed before she was calm enough to think clearly again. That asshole Jeremy was such a jerk sometimes. He knew now not to give her a hard time. Karen’s mind drifted back to the blue funk she’d been in before Jeremy came and set her off. Even now, the only reason she moved was because she heard the faint but unmistakable sound of Grampy’s green tractor, bup-bup-bup.
Karen knew from the sound that Grampy was driving this way. He’d be here within a few minutes. She went back and retrieved the teddy bear. “I’m sorry I dropped you,” whispered to the bear. “But that Jeremy, he was bein’ such a jerk, I hadda show him.” She hugged the bear, and resumed her desultory stroll up the camp road toward the paved road and Grampy and Nanna’s place.
The bup-bup-bup grew louder until it was nearly on her. Karen turned around, and she couldn’t help feeling a pleasant surge. Grampy, all gnarled up, sat in the metal seat of his green tractor, with its enormous, deep treaded rear tires, tiny front tires angled in on each other (Why is that? She often wondered), engine you could see, and a lid over the vertical exhaust pipe that bounced up and down. He was hauling an old square hay baler.
Grampy stopped the tractor when he came even with Karen. “Ahoy!” he cried out in a cheerful voice. “Methinks I see a lovely young damsel who wants a ride.”
Karen giggled in spite of herself. Grampy told the lamest jokes, but she always laughed at them. “Hi Grampy,” she said.
“Hop on up, little princess. This ain’t no hoss drawn carriage, but it is a Deere.” He chuckled at his own joke.
Karen climbed up on the metal pegs Grampy had welded in place to make it easier for him to get up and down. She’d ridden the tractor many times before, and Grampy had even let her try steering it, though that turned out to be impossible for her. Once up, she simply stood on the main horizontal frame rail and leaned back against Grampy.
Grampy released the brake, let out the clutch and shifted into first gear. The tractor started forward as smoothly as car at an intersection. The Bup-bup-bup of the engine rose up to a bupbupbupbup and they crept along not much faster than a brisk walk.
Karen could feel her residual anger melt away. For the first time since That Day, Karen felt at ease. Here was something and someone comfortable and familiar.
She rested her gaze on Grampy’s hands on the steering wheel. He was missing the pinkie and middle fingers on both hands. She asked him once how he lost them. “Well now, let’s see if I can remember. This one,” he said, indicating his right pinkie, “I lost that one to a tiger in Africa. The middle one? Well Nanna cut that one off cause I was using it to say bad things. That other pinkie, well it got stuck my ear when I was scratchin’ it, and I hadda take my jackknife to it. That middle one, I cut that one off to balance everything so I wouldn’t walk crooked.” Karen collapsed in peals of laughter, telling Grampy he was such a liar. But at the same time, she wasn’t totally sure if he was telling the truth or just having fun with her.
Grampy suddenly broke into a cheerful song. “She’ll be comin’ ‘round the mountain when she comes, She’ll be comin’ round the mountain when she comes, She’ll be ridin’ six white hosses, She’ll be ridin’ six white hosses, she’ll be ridin’ six white hosses when she comes.”
Karen giggled in spite of herself.
“Well here’s a girl who appreciates my singin. Maybe I oughta make a record, whatcha think?”
“Not with that song,” Karen giggled.
“How ‘bout this one then,” Grampy said. He started singing in his crusty voice, “Ohhhh the buzzin’ of the bees and the cigarette trees, by the soda water fountain, by the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings, In the Big Rock Candy Mountains. In the Big Rock Candy Mountains, you never change your socks. Little streams of alkeehol come a tricklin down the rocks. The farmer’s trees are full of fruits, the barns’re full of hay. I’m bound to go where there ain’t no snow, where the sleet don’t fall, and the wind don’t blow, in the big rock candy mountain.”
Karen was giggling uncontrollably. Grampy seemed to know how to raise her up from her inner crypt. He always did, pulling out silly old songs like this and making her feel warm and loved.
Before he could finish the song, they were in the sprawling gravel driveway in front of the barn and garage. There were gleaming tractors, hay balers, harrows, tedders, plows, log splitters, and all manner of equipment arrayed for sale on the lawn between the house and the barn and garage. The barn, its door open, held Grampy’s farm equipment. The garage was empty now.
Grampy stopped the tractor in the middle of the yard, and he shut it off. “Well now,” he said, jumping off. He held his arms up, took Karen in his strong hands, and lowered her to the ground. “This ol’ baler seen better days. Whatcha think? Is it worth tryin’ to fix, or should I just retire it? Seen a lot of summers, baled a lotta hay.”
“I don’t know, Grampy,” Karen giggled.
“Well, let’s go in the garage and get some tools, and we’ll see if she can stand one more operation.”
Karen followed her Grampy into the empty garage bay. She always loved the smell of oil, kerosene, and grease. It was comfortable, rich and soothing.
They’d no sooner gotten into the garage when Jeremy came bolting out of the house, his expression one of righteous anger. “There you are!” he declared, glaring at Karen. “Ain’t throwing no rocks now that Grampy’s here.”
“Jeremy…” Karen began, her voice rising.
“Hush,” Grampy said softly but firmly, and Karen reluctantly clamped her mouth shut.
“Grampa!” Jeremy cried. “She threw rocks at me, and said the worst swears! I din’t do nothing, either.”
Before Karen could protest, she noticed Grampy was scowling at Jeremy from under the bill of his oil and grime smattered green work hat. “Jeremy, are you a boy or a girl?”
By the sudden change in his expression, it was clear Jeremy knew he was being called out by Grampy. He looked at the ground and scuffed his feet. “A boy.”
“Then act like one,” Grampy said in an even voice. “Now go do your chores.”
When he was gone, Grampy shook his head. “Never mind him, he just don’t know any better. Now, I want you to go in the house and get some lunch. Your Daddy and Mommy are worried you ain’t eatin’ properly lately, and that ain’t good for a growin’ girl. Nanna’ll fix you a nice thick fried bologna san’wich, which I happen to know is your fav’rite.”
Karen looked at her feet, and said, “I haven’t been very hungry lately, Grampy.”
“I know that, an’ I know why. I ain’t a girl, so I can’t say I un’erstand your way of grieving. But I’ll tell you som’thin’ I ain’t told many people.”
Grampy took out his pipe, and as he spoke, he went through the ritual of filling and lighting it. “When I was a young man, I was in the Navy durin’ World War Two, on a ship called a destroyer, over in the south Pacific, exactly where don’t matter. I had me a great friend, best ever, name of Jim Deakins. We was both on the deck crew, the pissants who done alla nasty work no one else wanted to do. One night, our ship got inna scrap with some Japanese ships. Well, they put a torpedo in us, blew the ship all to hell, and sunk her. Was I scared? I was never so scared in my life. The details don’t matter. My friend Jim got hurt. Bad. We was in the water, and I’d muckled on to some piece o’ floating junk. I heard my friend Jim callin’ for me to help him. I tried swimmin’ over to him, but by the time I got where I thought he was – nothin’. I din’t hear him no more.
“I din’t have the time or the chance to grieve. It was war, and, well, war don’t care if someone was your friend, war is all about tryin to kill, you best get used to it or you’ll be the one gettin’ killed. It don’t like grievin’. But I never forgot Jim. He lives here.” Grampy thumped his chest. “Now I ain’t ever gonna talk about it again, but now you know somethin’ even your Daddy don’t know, and I hope you don’t be talkin’ with others about it. It’s a secret we share, somethin’ terrible we have in common.”
Karen watched her Grampy closely as he told his story, and she knew with absolute certainty that he wasn’t making it up. There was a sadness she never saw before on his creased-leather face. Suddenly, without thinking about it, she flung herself on her Grampy and hugged him. “I love you Grampy. I won’t tell anyone. Ever. I promise.”
“I know you won’t, sweetheart. I wouldn’t of told you if I didn’t think I could trust you. Just remember, your friend will always be with you, in your secret heart. Now go get somethin’ to eat.”
Karen’s cheeks glistened with tears. “OK, I will.”
The reprieve from her inner anguish given to her by Grampy was only temporary.
School was just a few days away, but Karen couldn’t generate any emotions over it, positive or negative. In normal times, back-to-school shopping would be nearing its climax, and Karen, Lisa, and their other friends would excitedly discuss what they were getting for new school outfits and accessories, what was cool, what wasn’t, what middle school would be like, whether or not various rumors about the new and intimidating teachers were true.
Not this year, though. School without Lisa was beyond imagining. All it conjured in her was a low, formless dread. She simply went through the motions when shopping, trying mightily to appear engaged. Tomorrow would be the last shopping day, and she could put that painful exercise behind her.
Karen went to bed early, anxious for the escape from pain sleep brought. She dreamed neutral dreams most nights, so there was no fear of nightmares. She slipped on her nightie, kissed her mother and father goodnight, and slipped under the crisp covers. She hugged the teddy bear close and drifted off.
It was an unusually vivid dream.
Karen was at what she knew was school, but it didn’t look anything like any school she ever attended, a mish-mash of the familiar and places her brain created. That didn’t matter. It was the first day of school, and she couldn’t find any of her classes, and everyone she passed in the corridors was a stranger. She felt like she’d wandered onstage in the middle of the play.
If only she could find a friend who would tell her where her classes were. And where the heck was Lisa? Lisa would know where they were supposed to be.
Just as she scolded herself, “She’s dead, dummy,” Karen turned a corner and there was Lisa, standing at an open locker. She looked up and smiled when she saw Karen.
Karen ran to her friend. “Lisa, I thought you were dead,” she cried with excited glee at her friend’s unexpected appearance.
“I am dead,” Lisa said matter-of-factly. “You know that. You were at my funeral.”
Karen pulled up short. “Yeah, but you’re here now, I can see you,” Karen protested.
Lisa shrugged, still smiling. “Doesn’t matter.”
“You can’t be dead!” Karen cried.
“Because I miss you. And I love you, Lisa. I love you!”
“And I loved you too, really, I did.”
“Then don’t go,” Karen pleaded.
“I have to, Karen. I just wanted to tell you I loved you.” Lisa turned to face her locker, and she started to step into it.
“Lisa! Don’t go! Please! I can’t go one without you.”
“Yes you can. Remember what Grampy said. He was right, I’ll always be there, right where he said.”
The vaguely familiar school had dissolved into the more familiar tree-lined street leading to the school. Lisa turned and walked away, unmoved by Karen’s frantic pleas to stay, even just for a while.
Karen came awake instantly. The teddy bear was mashed between her face and the pillow, and she sobbed and wept uncontrollably. Through her tears, she tried to make sense of the dream. It had been so real, so vivid. After a time – she had no idea how long – her sobs tapered, and her tears eased to a trickle.
Karen lifted her head and glanced at the digital alarm clock on her night stand. 1:37, the dead of night, the house absolutely still and quiet. She sat up, paused, and then padded barefoot to the bathroom so she could blow her nose.
When she returned to her bedroom, Karen peeled off her nightie, grabbed a pair of shorts and t-shirt from her bureau, pulled them on, then found her flip-flops. She silently crept from the house and into the night air. It was comfortably cool, not a hint of a breeze. She made her way down the road. Lisa’s place was only three houses down. Karen knew where she was going, but she didn’t know why yet, nor did she question the inner impulse that pushed her there. She made her way down the side of the road, until she reached the driveway of Lisa’s house.
Karen stood at the edge of the dooryard and looked at the house, once a warm and comfortable place, now dark and vaguely foreboding. As bad as her grief was, she contemplated how much worse it had to be for Lisa’s brothers and her parents. Were they having nightmares as they slept? Were they getting on with life, or pining like she was doing? Yes, that was it, pining.
A song slipped into Karen’s head. Something her father listened to, something she’d heard several times, one of her father’s favorites. Something powerful and profound, and oddly familiar. Karen made her way across the lawn to the back of the house, her flip-flops slapping in a steady rhythm as she walked. In the rear of the house, the back edge of the lawn ended at the tall, high grass of the meadow.
Karen stood silently for a moment. Her brain remembered the low, sonorous, melancholy sound of a pizaccato bass violin, over-flown by the high lament of a single violin. She smiled at how clearly she heard the music in her head.
At last, Karen looked skyward. Above her, the air was crystal clear, and the heavens blazed in their regal glory, a million stars making the sky come alive. And the moon. It was a waxing gibbous, about halfway through the last quarter, and it was directly above, casting its ghostly light, bright enough to light Karen’s way.
Karen pushed the chest high grass aside and stepped into the meadow. She plowed through the tangled grass, not thinking about where she was going, but absolutely sure of the way to get there. The moon followed behind her, the face looking as though it were peering from behind a doorjamb, checking to see if the coast was clear, yet indifferent to the twelve-year old girl pushing through the meadow grass in the dead of night.
When she felt the ground under her feet soften to mud, Karen kicked off her flip-flops and picked them up so they wouldn’t get sucked off in the muck. The mud got goopier and wetter with each step. The meadow grass gave way to reeds and cattails, and her feet plunged into the sludge, each step a kerploop-schlurp, releasing faintly a poopy smell each time.
At last, the mud became solid ground, and the reeds and cattails dissolved back into meadow. She pushed her way through the Queen-Anne’s-Lace, goldenrod, and grasses. Even though the moon lit her way, she didn’t need it. Her feet knew exactly how to get to where she had to go.
In the cold, sterile light of the moon, the old tractor shed stood as it had the day of the thunderstorm, collapsed on itself, a single briar entangled corner left standing. Karen’s lip began to quiver, and the lump in her chest grew until it was uncontainable. She let out a loud sob. Trembling heavily, she made her way around to the hidden entrance to the magic place.
Karen looked up at the moon, sobbing as she did. “It’s your fault,” she cried. “Don’t try hiding your face. You know it was your fault! You made it so they’d want to go on the lake! Then you watched! You watched everything we did! You watched! You din’t even try to hide behind a cloud! Now you try to play dumb! Fuck you! Fuck! You!”
Karen, her legs shaking, slipped through the secret entrance, now almost completely hidden by weeds, grass, wildflowers. She laid down in the spot where she and Lisa had embraced and kissed, where the roof broke open to drench them in rainwater, where she’d experienced one of the most thrilling moments of her life, the place where she almost told Lisa, “I love you.”
Now she clutched the bear to her face and said, over and over through her tears and sobs, “I love you, Lisa, I love you.”
When the well of her tears finally emptied Karen sat up. She wiped her nose on the back of her forearm. Her voice hitched and trembled and she said aloud, “Lisa, you din’t tell me if we’re being punished for being girls and loving each other. I promise not to be like that with another girl. I learned my lesson. Just you. Bye, Lisa,” she said to the bear.
Karen stood up and made her way out of the secret, magic place. She looked up at the moon. “There you fucking son of a bitch. You happy now?”
*Authors Note: I wrote this chapter about a year ago in one of those rare moments when the muses touch me and everything is laid out, crystal clear, in front of me.
Such Were Promises
yesterday i saw a rose, and thought of you,
and how, so many years ago
we explored the woods together,
you and i…
fashioned dolls out of clay and strung flowers in your hair,
roses on my lips,
and dreamed of growing wings someday to fly away as one…
we were never to part, you and i;
such were promises we made
always one, twins eternal, weren’t we…
joined at the heart;
sister-friends, with flowers in our hair,
laughed at mysteries we knew nothing of;
why boys ate frogs and were forever filthy creatures,
mean and stupid,
we would never ever stoop that low, would we…
painted color on our eyes and lips, with no intent
and laughed so hard, the mirror showed our horrid clown-like faces
tape measures round our skinny chests, no breasts
but soon, won’t they?
i think yours are bigger than mine,
and laughed, nervously
gave birth to imaginary children
we were such good mommies, weren’t
and the blood your mother said, soon
but not us, never
we will never bleed from… there
and now those rose-lips fade from our memories,
no more flowers in our hair, roses on our lips
no need to measure our skinny chests…
i watched you go away, so many years ago
the tears, in secret, now, not as then, you waved,
together no more, no twins and no more dolls of clay
i lost you to time
no more rose lipped children, are we…
my sweet dear sister-twin, my love, my never ending…
we left and went away, didn’t we
now there are different dreams,
different flowers, and children no longer made of clay
rose-lipped maidens, they;
ours, but no more we… time has taken us away
no servant, time, not for us
we were twins, rose-lipped, flowers in our hair
we were never to part, were we
such were promises we made
such were vows we couldn’t keep…
we grew those wings, didn’t we
to fly away…
i love you my twin,
i always will