The bow of the boat, where they liked to lay in the sun, was empty. She stepped closer, and in the space between the bow and dock’s edge was the shimmer of gold, soft, silk, unfurling in the water. She could trace the back of Mia’s head, face-down, just below the surface, seeming to turn just slightly from side to side, to show each strand. Her arms and legs pressed between the dock and the boat, her shoulder breaking the surface when small waves came in, everything in soft jostling unison. Mia’s swimsuit and skin ran together under the brown murk of the water.

Josie took a deep breath and held it. By the time Josie had to breathe, Mia would have popped her head up. But Josie couldn’t hold it as long as usual—her stomach gasped in, shoved air from her chest in one rough burst. She knelt on the dock and lifted a section of gold from the water, no longer curly, and tugged a bit, in a way that would say Got you, with it’s sharp prick of pain, which would send Mia turning over, to respond, to laugh or shout. But when Josie dropped the strand, Mia’s head dipped down again.

Josie stood with numb knees. She looked back up at the house. No one was there. No one had seen her.

The darkening sky rose over the roof and stretched, fully empty, forever away from her.

She walked unfeeling back to the stairs and rose up them, nearly dropping the Penguin Classic when she tripped on a stick. A dog barked from somewhere, a few houses away, maybe, but a quietness had made its home inside Josie.

On the deck, the corner of the picnic table pointed toward Josie’s center, and she touched its wooden edge. Water appeared on the wood where she had touched, in dark streaks that ebbed away as soon as she lifted her hand. Shade had cloaked the deck and goosebumps rose on her arms. She opened the kitchen door and stared at the house, which seemed so inflated with emptiness that it pushed Josie away—away from the table, with its peanut butter sandwich crumbs left from a million years earlier, away from the postcards taped to the refrigerator from places that didn’t seem to exist anymore—Los Angeles and Paris. She stood at the kitchen door for long frozen minutes, and the mosquito buzz rose like a tide behind her.

She took her book back to the hammock and sat on its edge, opened the pages, but spots glowed in front of her eyes. The hammock barely moved, but the whole lake seemed to fling around her, again and again, like she was a hinge for the rotating heft of all the water in the world.

When Bryce and Neil’s station wagon crunched down the gravel driveway, Josie realized she had never expected to see the parents again. She was shocked when she opened her eyes to find the hammock still tethered, astounded that the trees had not released her into a black pit. Their parents, hers and Mia’s, climbed out of the car, her mom loudly finishing a story, pointing one arm in the air, while Neil and Bryce lifted grocery bags, though it seemed to Josie that the world had cracked and dinner would never be eaten again by anyone anywhere.

She waited for a while with her book open. Finally she floated off the hammock and across the grass and opened the screen door.

Inside her mom was dancing with Bryce. He swayed her body in a gentle bob, up and down, side to side, from kitchen floor to carpet, barefoot, shoulder and hip fluid and smooth, the salsa moves she’d seen her mother dance only with him. Neil’s hips swayed as he drifted to dance around them, abandoning split tomatoes on the cutting board, seeds spilling out of them like so many tiny green teeth. Half-empty Coronas with lime wedges submerged. Chips. Salsa dripped across the table in neat red circles.

The linoleum pressed against the bottoms of Josie’s feet.

Bryce’s arm skimmed toward Josie. He kissed her cheek fast, a swift scratch of cardboard. Josie moved toward the bathroom, a tiny escape hatch, but her mom tugged her fingers.

“Not so fast, Missy J. What do you have going on with your skin?” she traced a finger across Josie’s cheek.

“The hammock,” Josie said. “I fell asleep.”

“Where’s Mia?” Neil said. Bryce was now unfurling him toward the wall, and he turned his chin to Josie as he neared the refrigerator and then as Bryce pulled him close.

“I’m not sure. I was reading all afternoon.”

Her mom stopped moving. “All afternoon? Since we left?”

Her mom would never have allowed it.

“Reading and napping. Exactly what summer vacation was made for,” Bryce said.

“It could be good to get a little human interaction sprinkled in,” her mom said. “The real world is out there, sometimes you have to shed your bookworm skins to get out! Out!”

“Town was a sauna,” Neil said. He glided back to the cutting board, chopping plump orange peppers.

Josie stared at her mom and at Bryce as they washed back to each other, sliding over the surface of the music, which sounded tinny, garish. When her mom so quickly turned her focus back to Bryce, Josie saw a glow beneath her mom’s skin that she’d never seen before, like shifting colors signaling her moods, her attentions. Did Mia always see people this way, so transparent? Was that why she moved through the world so easily?

Her hand freed, Josie escaped across the living room and into the bathroom and shut the door. She leaned over the sink. Stared at her face in the mirror. It was wrong. Wrong the pink imprints from the hammock, wrong the distorted angle of her eyebrow pushed up. Wrong the flush of her left cheek, darker than her right. Looking normal was important. She pulled out the make-up bag that her mom had stored behind the toilet, on built-in shelving. Unsnapped it. Pulled out a green case of blush. Her fingers felt like oven mitts and it took two tries to press in the little gray button that popped the blush open, so she could wave the brush across her right cheek. She had to match pink with pink—to fix her face. But, wrong. The left side was already lightening, and the pink was too rosy. She blushed the other cheek as well and dropped the brush into the sink, ringing the white bowl in powder that darkened where it caught on water droplets. Now both cheeks burned crimson, like Mia’s did when she forgot to reapply sunscreen. She rubbed her face on a white hand towel, on a rack next to the mirror, streaking pink across this fuzz that did not belong to her, that was Mia’s. This house belonged to Mia’s family, including the towels. She took the towel from the rack and refolded it, making it sloppy with her slow hands but hiding the pink on the back.

She took her Penguin Classic to the couch in the living room and opened it. They were still dancing. Neil was still chopping.

“Reading again? Dance with us,” her mom said. “It’s summer. Summer.”

“Let the girl read. She’s going to be supporting you someday, the brainiac,” Neil said.

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” her mom said.

Bryce took her mother’s hands and twirled them. “It means you have a smart kid, that you’ve done beautifully, be proud,” Bryce said.

“Josie, can you go find Mia? Dinner’s almost ready,” Neil said. “See if she’s in the tent.”

“She’s not,” Josie said. “I already looked.”

Bryce tipped Josie’s mom back and then righted her. “Let the lady relax. I’ll find her,” he said. “I’ll summon her with the promise of guacamole.”

Bryce left the house, called “Mia! Mia!” to no one, to squirrels.

He would check the tent, see the coil of Cat’s Cradle. He would hum his salsa music and trek down the way, to the neighbors’, to see if Mia was there.

Josie rose, like she could go and scream Mia, Mia, too, and it would call her back. And maybe Mia would walk into the kitchen, shake water away like a dog and say Got ya, at Josie. Tell the parents about her trick, about how Josie wouldn’t stop reading, and Josie wouldn’t even be mad for being teased, and their parents wouldn’t be mad that Mia had broken the rule. They would sit around the table together and eat. The sight of the table made Josie sick. She sat back down and read one page over and over, the words carving long grooves in her mind, dry riverbeds of someone’s old thoughts.

Neil was checking closets and under comforters in case Mia was hiding, singing a quick nervous tune: doop doop doop. Bryce was back, reporting: not at the neighbor’s. Not on the point. Not in the hammock. Josie was reading the same pages with a sensation like ice down her back.

“I’m stumped,” Bryce said.

“Want me to look anywhere?” Josie started to say, the words crunching in her mouth. Their faces turned toward her like suns.

“Josie, where exactly was she the last time you saw her?” Neil asked.

“She was on the point. Trying to get me to go swimming.”

Josie’s mom bit her lip. They all started out toward the deck in a mass, and Josie did, too. She didn’t follow when Neil said, “Whelp,” and started down the stairs, or when Bryce and her mom trailed behind him. She put the book on her knees and wanted to sink back into the story. All the parents walked out to the end of the dock and she watched them from the top, as they must have watched her and Mia so many times, checking on them, seeing them swim together. The boat bobbed up and down as they grew closer to it, but Josie couldn’t see much. She moved to the other side of the picnic table where she couldn’t see anything.

The sky was bigger than ever, penning her between the hills like a tent she’d never escape. When her mom screamed, it seemed spread outward over the lake to some unreachable place. And every sound was that way, wasn’t it? Something you could never get back? She had never thought of it, the sounds from the lips of people around her, so brief. And so was summer. But inside the house played the crass music, and there were the mosquitos, and, it seemed, something else: a low note carrying in the air that only Josie would hear, and that would never go away like the other sounds—a sound coming from somewhere quite different.

And then it was her mom at the top of the stairs, panting, red, sweating, reaching for the phone she’d left on the kitchen table. Her mom dialing and holding the phone to her ear, and looking at Josie there on the bench. In her mother’s eyes, she saw hard lake stones that had always been there, but that she had never recognized. She knew her mom was also seeing something old for the first time, and that she’d never look for it again. Her mother’s mouth opened slightly, as if Josie were a marvel.

Pages: 1 2 | Single Page