Posted Monday, October 13th, 2008
The Water Cave Part II.
Early Friday morning, Lannie wakes up and stands at her bedroom window. Sara's family must have come back in the night. Their truck is parked out front, a beach umbrella strapped on top. Lannie thinks maybe she will see Sara on their joining patios. She thinks maybe Sara will invite her to sit over on the other side for a while.
Lannie listens to her mother leaving for work before coming out of her bedroom. Then alone she lies on her mother's half-made bed, flipping back and forth between cartoons and court shows, eating dry cereal out of a mug. She decides she will look out of the window at ten o'clock exactly; if Sara is outside, then the water cave is real and they will find it. She waits and looks. No one is there. Still she isn't sure.
Lannie bikes over to the playground a few minutes before the hour. She is supposed to meet Jeremy at eleven sharp, but he isn't there. Finally, at a quarter past, he comes barreling down Willow, hollering her name out as if she might otherwise miss him, ditching his bike recklessly against the curb.
Geez, I'm right here, waiting, Lannie says.
Guess what? Jeremy says, racing to catch his breath so he can tell her. I confirmed everything. Ray's definitely gonna drive us. But we have to make it to his house by noon.
Jeremy holds out something that looks like a treasure map. It is drawn on an envelope, pulled from his backpack, which hangs crookedly on his back.
What else you got in there? Lannie says.
Supplies, Jeremy says earnestly, but a second later he cracks a grin, showing his gap. Back in the fifth grade, he would have kept his mouth straight; he would have laid each item out to show her.
Lannie takes the map in her hand and turns it over. On the back, there is another drawing, done up in ballpoint pen: a girl with freckles dotting her heart-shaped face.
Jeremy tugs the envelope from her fingers and tucks it away neatly.
You ready, Lannie Bishop? he says
She does not like the way he holds her whole name in his mouth.
Lannie tries to settle into riding, but her bike seems to have shrunk, or else she has grown too quickly. Pedaling hurts her knees. She suspects that she is ruining herself in some permanent way that she feels powerless to fix.
Even so, Lannie is faster than Jeremy. He falls behind as she muscles up a hill. They bike through one subdivision strung to another, then cross a bigger road. Jeremy calls directions from behind her, until winded they arrive at a clump of gray apartment buildings.
Jeremy has written down the building number on the envelope, but he is not sure which door. We could call, Jeremy says, but Lannie does not want to use her cell-phone. It is for 'emergencies only.' Her mother would ask about the call when the bill came. So they leave their bikes and knock on several doors. No one answers until they reach the highest landing.
Man oh man, am I glad to see you, Jeremy says.
It is hotter on the top floor of the apartment building.The boy standing in a doorway is stocky with a big head and acne scars along his cheeks. Behind him Lannie can see fans on high rattling in windows.
Hey Ray, it's me: Jeremy.
The boy is barefoot and shirtless, wearing only ragged cut-offs; the inner white pockets flapping out at his thighs.
You know: Swiftfoot, Jeremy says. Av-e clan. The boy's face doesn't change. Lannie clutches at her elbows.
C'mon, I'm Samuel's brother, Jeremy says, and finally the boy animates; he shakes his head, grinning, as if just remembering something funny and wrong.
Sly's kid brother, the boy laughs. Still he does not move from the doorway.
You said you could drop us off today at, you know, the store we talked about.
Yeah, today. Don't you remember?
With that, Jeremy steps forward, wriggling into the apartment, leaving a space so that Lannie can enter too.
There are two girls sitting on the bed in Ray's room. It takes Lannie a moment to realize that one of them is her neighbor. Sara's hair is different, lighter in streaks. Her face is very tan except around her eyes: a sunglasses-shaped paleness. There are ovals of pink peeling skin on her shoulders.
Lannie starts to say hi, but she catches herself. She decides she will wait for Sara to speak. Sara is wearing cut-offs, too, and a pink halter, her boobs cradled in the two small triangles of fabric.
Who are they? the other girl says, jabbing a finger towards Lannie. She was one of the girl's on Sara's patio, the tall girl with dark wavy hair. Today her hair is up in a high ponytail, like those Barbie heads where you pull hard and synthetic locks comes out like Rapunzel. The dark-haired girl narrows her eyes at Lannie, gesturing with the can of beer in her hand.
Another beer sits open on the windowsill near Sara. It probably belongs to Ray, Lannie thinks, or maybe it's empty and has been sitting there forever. Lannie watches Sara look through the whirring window-fan at blurred slices of the parking lot. She notices how Ray is watching too.
Hello Ray! the dark-haired girl says. That was a question. She snaps her fingers in front of his pockmarked face.
Chill out, already, Girl, he says.
He gulps down the rest of a beer, crushes the can, and starts to rifle through pockets of clothing covering the floor.
I'm just saying: who are these babies anyway? The dark-haired girl blinks angrily. Thick mascara coats in clumps on her lashes.
Ray laughs but only because he has found his wallet, a set of car keys chained to them. He pulls on a t-shirt. I'm just dropping them off. No big deal, he says.
But it is a big deal because Lannie's mother has warned her that she should not, under any circumstances, get in a car with someone who has been drinking. If she does, she'll end up dead on the side of the road, with everybody discussing her stupidity at great length.
You said you were taking us to the river, the dark-haired girl says, darting in very close to Ray. Like a reflex he grabs her elbow, quick and strong.
Owwweee, she says.
Lannie is afraid that when he lets go, the dark-haired girl will say something more. Then Ray will start explaining. And Sara will find out where he is taking them. But instead, when Ray lets go, the dark-haired girl rubs her elbow silently.
Ray ushers everyone out of his room and out of the apartment, leaving the fans to turn over hot air. On the way down the stairs, he leans into the dark-haired girl's peach-colored face.
Don't worry baby. I'll drop you off first and be right back. His voice is slippery and low.
At the landing, Lannie runs her hands over her pockets. Her cell-phone is missing; she must have set it down somewhere. She feels like big baby, but she has to find it, so she asks Jeremy, pulling him back by his sleeve. Jeremy tells Ray but Ray just shakes his big head. You think I'm walking up all those stairs again in this heat? Then Sara says, Give me the keys. I'll take her.
They find the phone on the bureau. On their way back downstairs, Sara stops Lannie before the last floor.
Hold up a sec, Lannie, Sara says. Lannie turns and Sara peers steadily into her eyes.
I'm going to tell you something. She touches Lannie's shoulder. But you absolutely cannot ever tell another living soul.
Lannie promises she will not tell: not now, not ever. She looks up at Sara, crossing her heart with her finger.
Don't do that.
Don't do that cross your heart thing, okay?
Then Sara leans in closer to Lannie, whispering. The thing is, Sara whispers, someone special has been emailing me…
A boy? Lannie interrupts, but Sara just shakes her head, bright hair falling over her mostly tanned face.
Your mom? I don't get it. Why can't she just talk to you regular, like mine does to me?
No, listen, Sara says, blowing air out impatiently; her new bangs fly up like a wing. That woman we live with is not my mother. I'm taking about my real mother, okay?
The two girls stand frozen in the August heat, Sara's long arm extended, her hand resting on Lannie's shoulder blade.
Tell me Lannie, Sara says, what are you and that boy are even doing here anyway?
Lannie looks down, doesn't know what to say. She doesn't say anything.
Finally Sara withdraws her hand. Sara looks out over the ledge, down to the pavement, the waves of heat rising from it.
You know what: this is stupid, Sara says. Forget this conversation ever happened, okay.
The other kids are waiting on the last landing, just out of the sun. Together, they follow as Ray approaches a battered blue pickup, as if it's a dog he knows but doesn't quite trust. There are inner-tubes lining the truck bed, tied with twine so they won't flop out.
Ray, Sara, and the dark-haired girl sit up front, leaving Lannie and Jeremy to hoist the bicycles up. They pull and push and struggle at it before squeezing in themselves. Then Ray turns the key and truck rumbles to life. They drive through town, cross the railroad tracks, then turn onto Route 20, which winds and turns. Wedged in an inner-tube, Lannie bounces and grips the side of the truck. Her hair whips back and her voice vibrates in her chest before getting swept away with the wind. She is thinking, Please God, don't let me throw up.
At the same time, Sara's secret gusts around inside her. Maybe she should have said something different on the landing, but even so… Lannie keeps her eyes on Sara, sure that Sara will give some sign of their new connection. All the windows are down and Sara's hair is blowing around, too. Sara turns and looks back once, but she doesn't look at Lannie exactly. She just looks at the road, disappearing behind them; she pulls a tangle of hair from her mouth.
A few miles into the state park, they slow and pull off at small gravel lot. The dark-haired girl wants Ray to carry the cooler and the supplies to the river. Ray tells Jeremy to sit tight, then the older kids disappear down a shady path.
Some ride, huh? Jeremy tells Lannie, wiping his hands on his shorts. I thought I was going to barf or something. Jeremy jumps out, and starts lifting up rocks around the parking area. Look! Black fly larvae, he calls.
Great, Lannie says. She flips open her cell phone. It's two o'clock already.
When Ray gets back, he tells Lannie and Jeremy to sit up front. Nice and cozy, he says. The pickup has a single bucket seat and Lannie ends up in the middle. She finds herself studying the sore-looking places along Ray's jaw. He catches her and she looks down quickly, sure that Ray will laugh at her. He looks ready to laugh---his mouth open, his tongue waiting---but no sound comes out. Jeremy starts to talk about World of Warcraft, and Lannie is sure Ray will tell him to chill out already. Instead, Ray pokes her arm with his beer can.
I know you want some, girl, he says.
Lannie swallows hard. She does not want some. Besides, she knows that if she has any beer, when the car crashes, when they find her body, then they'll know she is to blame.
OK, she says, taking the can, just feeling Ray's fingers leave it. She brings it to her mouth, sips. Warm yeasty liquid expands in her throat. The pick-up bounces down the road.
How about you, Lil' Sly? Ray says to Jeremy. But Jeremy is staring bug-eyed at Lannie. Jeremy says, No thank you. I don't like the taste of beer; actually I'm allergic to it. Lannie glares at Jeremy, embarrassed by him, or envious.
Ray takes a sip himself and nestles the can between his thighs. He drives slowly, carefully down the two-lane road with pine trees shooting up on either side of it. They do not crash or veer or swerve, even as Ray lights a cigarette.
At the store Ray helps them take their bikes down. We'll see you back at four-thirty sharp, Jeremy says, pushing his glasses back up the slope of his nose.
About that---Ray says, leaning against the truck bed. I've gotta get back to those girlies. You know how it is.
Jeremy shakes his head like no, he doesn't know. His hair is damp now. His face shines with new sweat. A few clear beads streak down his cheeks, which are darker tan with dust and dirt.
This is pretty much a pain in my ass, Ray says, driving you all over.
It's not 'all over,' Jeremy says. And you said you would drive us and pick us up. With that, Jeremy reaches into his backpack. Lannie thinks he will pull out proof, maybe copies of emails exchanged. Instead Jeremy just pulls out a bandana, runs it over his face.
Actually, Rays says, I could use some gas money, Swiftfoot.
Jeremy shakes his head like he cannot believe it. Then he reaches in his backpack and hands over a few rumpled bills, which Ray smooths out.
Christ, what's this? Ray says. I thought we were friends. He turns to Lannie. C'mon girl, he says.
Lannie feels sick from the car-ride, the smell of gasoline. Warm beer slides around in her stomach. She pulls out the last of her birthday money, and places all but a few dollars in Ray's open palm. He counts it and lets out a big laugh, held over from earlier.
Hell, maybe I will come back, he says, sliding into the pick-up. Yeah, maybe those girlies'll get bored at the river and I can drop them off and come back for you guys.
Maybe, Ray calls again as the truck pulls back onto the narrow, gray road.
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