“Abby! Get up! You know we have to be out of the house by nine!”
“I don’t want to get up,” Abby whined, pulling the pillow over her head. Her behavior was particularly surly already. She kicked her ample legs under the covers and then settled with a loud, “ugh.”
“If we’re late getting out of the house, we’ll be grounded. Just get up. You can sleep when we get there. Please.” I should just leave her here, thought Nadia to herself. It would certainly make her day more pleasant. Abby was a pain in the ass. She did nothing for herself and treated everyone with disdain. She’d been a deceitful, petulant brat her whole life and this morning, just like every morning, she was Nadia’s problem.
Nadia sat on the floor pulling left and right on the heavy French provincial drawer, forcing it inch by inch, screeching along the track until finally, the gaudy facade was out far enough for her to slip her small hand in and grab a t-shirt. Ugh! I hate this furniture. Why couldn’t they have picked something less ridiculous. She fell back against her bed with a heavy sigh. Forget the shorts, it’s too much work. With both feet pressed against the facade, she angrily kicked the drawer back into place.
“Jesus, Nay, why do you have to be so friggin’ loud?” A muffled voice came from under Abby’s pillow.
Nadia shimmied into the jean shorts she’d worn the previous day. They’d only last long enough for her to walk the quarter mile to the lake, anyway. “Are you kidding me? If you’d get your butt out of bed, you could help. He’s not going to yell at you, remember?” Nadia stared at the cocoon of pillows and blankets that was Abby’s bed. “I’m leaving. I’m not getting in trouble for you, again.” As she turned toward the door, she noticed the wrinkle she’d made in the bed spread. She pulled her hand carefully across the watered silk until the piping was perfectly aligned along the edges of the mattress and the grey of the spread was as smooth as glass. She stood back and carefully inspected her side of the room. Nothing out of place: it’s safe to leave.
“Can you grab me something, too?” Abby stepped into the kitchen, pulling a tank top over her head. Her flip flops dragged across the floor, grating on Nadia’s nerves.
“Sure.” She didn’t hide the disdain in her voice. She grabbed a couple of extra snack bags from the pantry. Knowing Abby as she did, Nadia had already added an extra sandwich to the bag. She wanted no reason to return to the house and she was already at that Abby was lagging behind. 8:48 am. She’d made it, as long as Abby hadn’t disturbed anything on the way out the door. Only 30 seconds had passed between their exits, but a lot could go wrong in that amount of time.
Abby caught up about half way down the long driveway. The big water oaks were heavy with the morning’s rain shower. Sunlight found its way around the moss-free, well manicured limbs, bursting in multicolored stars on the fresh puddles clinging to the polished concrete. He wouldn’t bother pressure washing until the rains had subsided. The patches of algae were too small yet to pose a threat, but the faint hint of mildew clung to the hot, suffocating air.
Just a few more steps and they’d be across the street. The enormous melaleucas were warming, radiating their bizarre smell of burnt mashed potatoes. In the morning light, the lush green leaves created the most incredible canopy over head along the entire 100 yard length of the neighbors’ blacktop driveway. A rebellious choice in a neighborhood of perfectly manicured concrete, and hotter than Venus by this time of day. She closed her eyes and listened for the hushed sough of the leaves as she walked. Big chunks of paper bark slid across the asphalt, adding staccato scratching to the ensemble. She knew this driveway well, so Nadia walked ahead with her eyes still closed, letting the summer symphony drown out Abby’s incessant chittering.
It took ten minutes to walk the distance between their house and the shore of the lake across the street. The others were already there, untying the rope that held the big raft in place. It was already 90 degrees in the shade and Nadia needed a moment to cool off before she helped push ten square feet of heavy wood into position. On the water, it was the perfect float. On land, it was 500 pounds of frustration. She dropped the bag near the raft and continued to walk the length of the boat dock that extended into the lake. Stretching her slender arms above her head, she breathed in the distinctive scents that barely moved over the surface of the water. Summer air hung heavy in the Florida humidity, but it smelled of fresh water, cypress bark and freshly mown grass. Her eyes followed the shoreline, smiling at the fisheye image painted on the mirror surface that followed a storm. The spectacular blue of the sky, the billowy white of clouds, surrounded by the muted greens and browns of the great cypresses stretched into tapering lengths toward the center. She closed her eyes thinking that tranquility was a word that was often over used, but it was, at that moment, what she felt.
The shorts came off just before she stretched her long limbs into a shallow dive. By the middle of July, it was like swimming in bath water, but compared to the stifling heat, it was cool and refreshing. Debris from the lake bed swirled around her head as she came to the surface and turned toward the other girls still tugging the raft toward the water’s edge. It wasn’t very deep until several yards, so she stood watching the other struggle with the raft for a few moments, chuckling at how much harder it was without a fourth person.
“Get your skinny butt out of the water and help!” Marybeth yelled out, laughing. She was a petite southern belle with an uncanny ability to fool her parents. Her long braid was fraying around her face and sticking to her cheeks and Nadia smiled watching her clumsily brush it away with one hand while trying to drag the raft with the other. “C’mon already!” She was still laughing. She never really gave Nadia a hard time about anything. She was mischievous but sweet, so while she might skip school to go to the beach, she’d pack a complete lunch, including freshly baked cookies, for everyone she convinced to skip with her. Nadia adored her and spent as much time at her house as she could manage, immersed in laughter and the smell of fried green tomatoes.
She coerced herself to leave the comfort of the water only because the reward was the peace of hours of uninterrupted sun-bathing in the middle of the quietest, most exclusive lake in the county. With a heavy sigh, she trudged out of the water and grabbed one of the corners. Once free of the grass, it slid easily across the sand and with a splash, settled onto the surface. They anchored it temporarily to a cypress knee and loaded the day’s supplies in a pile in the center. They’d perfected this activity. It had become a dance.
The four girls pushed the raft to the middle of the lake, eight strong legs kicking hard for 100 yards. They stopped when they’d reached the cold spring. It was a strange spot, easily 25 feet deep and ice cold five feet below the surface. It was one of the few places where the coon tail didn’t grow, so there was no shelter for the more dangerous lake inhabitants. The water was clear and well lit to about ten feet and there was absolutely no current, so there was no need for an anchor. They’d pushed that raft to every corner of this body of water. They knew exactly where they were safe.
The big foam floats kept the whole thing stable. Even with all four girls pulling down on a single side, it was impossible to flip it over. Abby always had to be pulled onto the raft by the other three. Dragging her 150 pounds around was Nadia’s penance for being a normal teenager and her ticket to summer freedom. As long as Abby was safe, Nadia could come and go as she pleased. Everyone else knew it, too, but never discussed it. She was the price, and the rest were willing to pay it.
They’d mastered the sunbathing preparations without knocking each other off accidentally. After half a summer of this daily routine, even Cecilia, tall and freckled, had developed a tan. On the rare occasion that her father pulled the boat off of the dock, Cecelia would monopolize the skis. She was powerful and Nadia, who had no skill at all, would watch in awe at Cecelia’s muscles pulling the ski in and out of nearly flat turns. She was the fun friend; the kind that incited bad decisions and then managed to escape before she got caught. Above all, she was fearless. She’d thrown punches at enough people that even some men were cautious in her presence. Cecelia was the token body guard for the four of them, and they all knew it.
Within thirty minutes, Abby was snoring. At least she’s not talking, Nadia thought. Cecilia and Marybeth were quietly recounting the previous day’s boyfriend disaster. Something about him running out of gas and needing Marybeth to rescue him. What an idiot. He can’t string two coherent sentences together and he can’t take care of himself. I hope the sex is worth it, because he’ll never give her much else. Nadia looked up from her book and smiled at her two friends. They weren’t complicated and it was precisely that that made them so valuable to her. They were bright, and funny, and lighthearted in a way that reminded her what normalcy was supposed to look like. Two lovely, sensuous girls that wanted nothing more from her than her ability to listen.
“Nay?” Marybeth sat up on her towel and propped her weight on her elbows.
“Yes?” Nadia looked up and smiled, admiring how Marybeth’s now dry auburn hair was cascading over her shoulder, framing her breast. I understand completely why men want her, Nadia thought.
“Did you bring the lemon juice?”
“Of course. Do I ever forget?” Nadia smirked. No, she never forgot anything and Marybeth knew it. She reached into the big, hot pink bag she’d brought and handed Marybeth a spray bottle of lemon juice diluted in water. Marybeth sat up and saturated her hair, using a quarter of the contents. Cecilia playfully smacked Marybeth on the arm. “Hey, save some for the rest of us!” Cecelia squealed. Suddenly, in a graceful twist, Marybeth was on top of Cecelia pulling her by the wrists and rolling her off the raft. Both girls went in flat, with a huge splash. The weight of the raft kept it from moving very much and Abby, still snoring, did not even flinch.
“Way to waste the lemon juice, genius.” Nadia said to her friends, who now hung onto the side of the raft, arms folded, chins resting on their wrists. Simultaneously, they made silly faces at her and then at each other. Suddenly, they dropped out of sight and seconds later Nadia felt four hands grab her bathing suit bottoms and pull hard. She rolled into the water on top of them, saving herself from losing her suit. All three broke the surface laughing. “You two are idiots, you know?”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Cecelia, panting from treading water, “but you’re laughing.”
“Yes, I am,” Nadia said, splashing a huge hand full of water at Cecelia’s face.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Cecelia raised an eyebrow, took in a deep breath and pushed herself underwater. This time she got both hands on Nadia’s bottoms and had them off in one good yank.
“Damn it, Ce!” Nadia shrieked and grabbed at her bottoms as Cecelia waved them above her head. Cecelia finally got tired of working so hard and dropped the bottoms on Nadia’s head. “Ha ha, very funny.” Despite the sarcasm, Nadia was genuinely amused.
“Hey, guuuuuys,” Marybeth dragged out the last word.
“What,” Nadia and Cecelia turned toward the sound of Marybeth’s voice a few feet away, only to see her wide-eyed and pointing toward the raft. Their water aerobics had caused the raft to drift about ten feet from where they were swimming. Abby still snored heavily on her towel, but now, to her left, laid a four foot alligator, sunning itself. The three girls stared at each other for what seemed like forever before Nadia realized that it was she who would have to solve this problem.
Just a little gator, she thought. What’s the worst he could do? Then, the real fear set in. She looked at Marybeth and Cecelia and said, “I’m going to swim around the back of the raft and yank him off by the tail. Worst case, we lose a towel, right?”
“Sure,” said Cecelia, the braver of the two, sounding like she was trying to convince herself.
“Okay, you two jump back on the raft as soon as you see him slide off and then pull me on,” Nadia was definitely trying to convince herself. The girls quietly sunk below the surface and swam toward the raft keeping their eyes on the gator. The heavy tail was dangling in the water and as long as Abby didn’t wake up and scare the hell out of it, the animal would just sit there. In the many years they’d been spending their summer days on the lake, they’d never seen a gator come near the raft. Nadia surfaced very quietly and reached her hands as far up the length of the tail as she could until she had to actually grab it. Yelling “Now!” she gripped the base of its tail and flung it as far as she could while having no leverage. It didn’t go very far, but it was enough persuasion to make it simply swim away. Marybeth and Cecelia grabbed Nadia by her elbows and had her on the raft in one great pull. All three girls sat heavily, exhaling in unison. They stared at each other for a moment and then burst into hysterical laughter from relief. Abby snorted in her sleep and rolled over onto her back. The others hushed and stared at her for a moment. Once they were sure she was still sleeping, they scooted closer to each other and tittered quietly.
Dinner was served promptly at six o’clock every night, so the girls knew that Abby and Nadia had to start swimming at five o’clock to get home in time. After the alligator incident, the girls had spent the rest of the afternoon as they always had: chatting, napping, reading. Abby finally woke around lunchtime, eaten the lunch that Nadia had packed for her, and then went back to sleep. Nadia had never seen her sleep so much while on the lake, but her silence was a welcomed change.
They pushed the raft back to shore together and pulled it toward the big cypress by the dock. “Go on ahead,” said Marybeth, “we’ll clean up.”
Nadia looked at her with gratitude in her eyes. “I love you guys,” she said. It wasn’t eloquent, but her face said much more than did her words.
An afternoon storm cloud had settled in above their heads. It certainly wasn’t the first time they’d walk home under the threat of rain. But the same blacktop driveway that was so inviting on warm summer mornings was terrifyingly dark now. Melaleucas burn easily and one lightning strike can take down a whole row in minutes. The same canopy that created beautiful mottled patterns of light just hours ago, now created a black hole down the entire length of the long walk.
Nadia gathered her bag and pulled her shorts on and walked quickly toward their house. Abby followed holding her shirt and dragging her flip flops. “C’mon Nana, wait up!”
“No, I’m not going to wait up. We have to get inside, showered, dressed and ready to eat by six. You know the rules. You can be as late as you want, but I’m going to be on time.” Nadia hurried up the driveway and into the utility room. The house was unusually quiet considering that the housekeeper would normally be moving pots and pans and dishes around the kitchen. There should have been more noise, a great deal more noise. She put her bag down in her designated place in the closet and headed toward the hallway bath, hoping that it was just the rare occasion where Margaret had made a casserole and had already cleaned up her work.
When Nadia rounded the corner, she saw him, standing in the middle of kitchen, holding a bottle of some kind of alcohol in one hand and his leather belt in the other. Margaret had neither made a casserole, or cleaned up her work. She stood by the stove stirring something in a saucepan. She stared into the pot, as though she was on autopilot.
Nadia heard Abby coming behind her. She whipped her head around just in time to see Abby’s face change into terror as she froze in the hallway.
His voice broke the silence. “I found this under your sink in the bathroom. Who’s is this?” He asked through clenched teeth, seething, but Nadia knew the truth wouldn’t matter. It never mattered.
“Hers!” Abby pointed at Nadia, and just as Nadia opened her mouth to deny it the leather whistled through the air landing squarely on her shoulder. She collapsed into a ball on the floor knowing that if she just stayed quiet and didn’t argue, it would be over much sooner. He brought the belt down four more times on her back while Abby cowered and cried in the corner. Suddenly, Abby’s all day sleep fest made sense. Another year, thought Nadia. Just one more and I can go. She held onto that thought as the last stroke hit her across the back. Then my penance will be over. I won’t need him. I can leave. I’ll have the trust. It’ll be mine. I can last. She silently cursed her mother again for dying and leaving her with this angry animal and his cowardly daughter. For a moment, she secretly wished that the alligator had snapped her neck. Then she wondered why Abby would bother to lie. He wasn’t going to punish her; she was his. But Nadia was a burden left behind by a woman who’d abandoned him by dying. It was easy to punish her because in his twisted mind, it was her fault.
He stepped back and looked down at Nadia, who had raised herself to kneeling. She looked into his eyes. “Are you done?” She was hardened. She had determined that he’d never win. He took another step back and Nadia further hardened her gaze as she stood. It would very likely be the same tomorrow, just as it was the day before when Abby had left the bicycle in driveway. It was a good week when it was only once or twice. This would not be that kind of week.
He turned on his heels and walked heavily back to his room. He wouldn’t come out until morning and she would be well hidden in her own room until after he’d gone. The play would continue on, until one day, the players would change. Until then, the walk to the lake never did.