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LAce Posted Monday, October 6th, 2008
The Water Cave Part I.
Jocelyn Johnson

Lannie Bishop sees Jeremy Ryder standing over his bike by the pumps at the Quik-mart. He says, Hey, you wanna ride together? and Lannie says OK.

She knows Jeremy from Stonegate Elementary. But since he is a boy and weird, she's never talked to him much. Once in their fifth grade class, he brought in a board pinned with dragonflies---their brittle wings outstretched, their armored abdomens and whiskery legs exposed.

Where is everybody? Lannie asks as they pedal toward Dogwood, their knees rising and falling in rhythm like a swimmer's stroke.

On vacation, most likely, Jeremy says.

Lannie peers over at him. Maybe Jeremy Ryder has changed since she last saw him their last day of elementary school. But, no---he looks just the same. Same bell-shaped hair brushing wire-rimmed glasses. Same eager grin exposing the gap between his front teeth.

They bike together to the playground on Willow. They lean their bikes on either side of an old sycamore tree. The playground is deserted too, as if everyone has stolen off to some secret place.

You ready for school? Lannie says, squatting and stirring the mulch with a fallen stick. In thirteen days they will both be starting at Wakefield Middle. Their fifth grade class took a field trip there, given tours by tall, eighth grade girls with 'hello my name is' stickers stuck onto their chests.

I figure the class-work should be do-able, Jeremy says. But Lannie can tell he knows that's not what she means.

That cafeteria---did you seen how big? And the locker area, or the locker commons, or whatever they call it…Lannie touches the base of her throat, the hollow spot where freckles collect.

Jeremy looks over the playground where no one plays, squinting and pushing his glasses back onto his head.

I'm glad everything will be different, he says.

***

Later Lannie slides open her sliding glass door and the bright sound of laughter startles her. It's coming from neighbor's patio, which runs alongside her own with only a low row of planters between. A girl named Sara Parson lives next door.

Sara Parson is thirteen, two whole years older than Lannie. Sara lounges out back on a long lawn chair, mirrored sunglasses covering her eyes; in their shiny twinned surface, Lannie sometimes sees her own self reflected.

Today a group of girls are arranged around Sara's patio, all facing the sun like giant sunflowers. Lannie's door squeaks on its track, and together the older girls turn to look. Lannie wants to go back inside, but it seems weird, so she sits alone on her own porch beside them, even as the older girls turn back to the sun.

Sure, the water cave, a dark-haired girl says loudly. The one way out by the water tower.

Another girl says no, the cave is actually in Powhatan State Park. A mile or so up the road from Clyde's, and west toward the parkway.

A third girl interrupts, saying she knows for a fact it's in the other direction, in a big cow field near a rock stuck out like a thumb.

Then the girls all go quiet about the water cave. When they start up again, it's in an excited murmur, about the things they can all agree on. They agree, for instance, that next to the rock, there's a pool of water. They hold their arms out to show its dimensions, as if hugging an enormous invisible thing, or performing ballet. They agree that there's no way around it: you have to swim underwater to get inside.

I hear that water's freezing, even in August, Sara says and Lannie shivers in the heat.

***

The next morning, when Lannie goes outside, Sara waves her over to the other side of the patio. Without sunglasses on, Lannie can plainly see Sara's bright gray eyes. Ten o'clock and it's already sweltering. A thin sheen of sweat sparkles on Sara's skin.

You know it's not real, right? Sara says. That cave we were talking about.

Lannie almost says, It is real. Is so. But she catches herself.

Maybe Sara is just looking out for her, like a big sister would. Maybe Sara Parson is the kind of girl Lannie wants to become.

***

Then Sara's family leaves town too, packing up early one Friday morning. Lannie watches from her bedroom window as Sara's father puzzles beach chairs and duffel bags into the back of their truck. Then Sara's mother appears, hair still wet, wearing a high-waisted sundress. Sara is the last to walk out of the townhouse. She is listening to music, her eyes half closed, thin white headphone cords tangled in her hair.

After they pull away, Lannie strings her house key around her neck and sets off on her bicycle. She ventures out almost every day, despite her mother's warnings, delivered on the way out to work:

Don't go past Ridge Street.
Don't talk to strangers.
Don't you know what can happen to a girl out there on her own.

Lannie answers to herself silently: I won't, I don't, how could I?

Lannie pedals down Main Street. She drifts through a few old neighborhoods where old people sit out on screened-in porches, their faces blurred behind the tight pattern of mesh. She passes her old school, Stonegate, and then the Middle school, which will soon be her new school. She heads over to Dogwood. Jeremy said he lived near there. She spots him circling his bike in a cul-de-sac.

Jeremy is going slowly, hands off the handlebars, balancing. His bicycle is iridescent green, like a fly's back, with knobby tires, and an odometer neatly ticking off miles. Jeremy is looking out ahead, concentrating, his pale pink tongue curled up on his lip.

The first time Lannie passes, he doesn't see her. But on her second run, he calls out her name. He turns and follows her, standing on his petals, his hands back on the handlebars.

They bike out toward the Quik-mart. Together they turn onto Willow, just like that first day. All the carports they pass are overfilled with rusted lawn tools, streaked canisters, tricycles turned on end.

So, there's this place, Lannie hears herself saying, Out in Powhatan: a water cave or something.

A water cave?

Yeah, a water cave.

Lannie and Jeremy are biking side by side now, so slowly their wheels wobble. The shadows of their bikes nearly touch.

Caves are so dark, Jeremy says, you can't even see your hand in front of your face.

Yeah, well, Lannie says, this one's near Clyde's Country Store. Exactly one mile east from there. Lannie has a flash of how, back in the fifth grade, Jeremy used to line his pencils up in a perfect straight line at the edge of his desk.

We could bike a mile easy, Jeremy says.

The problem would be, Jeremy goes on, getting to Clyde's---on our own, I mean.

Lannie thinks she doesn't actually want to go to the water cave, and not with Jeremy Ryder; or she wants to have already gone and come back.

She touches her throat like a reflex.

Yeah, that is the problem, isn't it? she says.

***

The next day, out of nowhere, Jeremy rings Lannie's doorbell. When she cracks the door open, he explains right away how he waiting for her mom to drive off. Lannie wants to be annoyed, but there is something she appreciates about him waiting and knowing to wait. They sit on the stoop together.

So I was thinking, Jeremy says, there's this kid I play World of Warcraft with. He's older. His grandmother has a truck. She supposedly lets him drive everywhere…

The bowl of Jeremy's hair is parted and pulled open like curtains, offering a rare view of his forehead, his eyebrows rising half way between doubt and hopefulness.

This kid, Jeremy says, His name is Ray. He goes to school with my brother. He's an all right player, I guess. Anyway, it was me who invited him into my clan: The Avenging Angels, Av-e, for short.

They're pretty big, Jeremy adds after a moment. Lannie looks out at the empty spaces in the lot.

The point is, Jeremy says, this kid Ray pretty much owes me big time. I bet I can get him to take us and our bikes to Clyde's. We could just bike from there; that'd be better, more authentic, than getting a ride the whole way, doncha think?

You ever hang out with him? Lannie says.

Who, Ray?

No, your brother. You said you have a brother.

My brother's way different than me. He's this big basketball star I guess. His name is Samuel, but they call him Sly---which is the stupidest name ever. Seriously.

Lannie looks at Jeremy. Behind his glasses, his eyes are big and dark; she hadn't noticed before.

At least, she says softly, you have someone, someone around.

I think, Jeremy says, me and you should go to the water cave. I think we should go and not tell anyone at all.

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  • JOCELYN'S STORIES: fiction and prose about motherhood & more

    Comments [post a comment]

    Posted by Donna Levy [ donnachka@cox.net ] on Tuesday, October 7th, 2008 at 4:12 PM
    Well, Jocelyn, you succeeded. I can't wait to read Part II!!! You did a great job. Love, Donna



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