After breakfast they walked down the hill to the beach. The sand was still cool and silky on Andie’s feet, the lake a mirror full of trees and sky that Paul and Libby broke apart when they ran right in. Their mother spread out the blanket and sat down, lighting a cigarette and pouring some iced coffee from her thermos into the cup part. Andie pushed her toes into the sand and looked around for Nancy, her friend from down the road who was exactly her age—eight—but so far the beach was mostly empty.
Her mother rested her coffee cup on the blanket and stuck the cigarette in her mouth so she could push her bathing-suit straps off her shoulders. Without looking at Andie she said, “Aren’t you going in?”
“I’m cold,” Andie said, although she wasn’t. She had a fresh scab on her knee from where she’d scraped it on a rough rock when Paul pushed her off the pier yesterday. Her mother had sighed and scolded Paul and then taken Andie up to the cottage, where she’d cleaned the cut and put a band-aid on it, acting like it was nothing even though a flap of skin was hanging and it was bleeding like crazy. Later Andie had taken the band-aid off because her mother said it would heal faster if the air got at it. Just thinking about being in the water now made it sting, but Andie knew her mother would think that was a silly reason not to swim.
“Suit yourself,” said her mother. She leaned back on her hands and stretched her legs out in the sun. They were brown like an egg from all the days here on the beach. This was the end of their third week at the lake, which meant there’d be just one more after this, when Andie’s father would be here too, starting tonight. So far he’d been coming up each Friday night and driving back down to Boston on Sunday because he had to work in between. Andie wondered what her father would do here for a whole week, since he didn’t like to swim and never even put on shorts. On Saturdays and Sundays, all he did was read in the chair on the grass outside the cottage, or take the rowboat out by himself and stay gone for a long time. It wasn’t until the evening, when he and Andie’s mother would have their cocktails and maybe play cards with the Farrells, that it seemed like he was really here. In fact it felt like he was fading out of Andie’s life even when they were home, since he hardly ever played games with her and Paul and Libby or took them out for ice cream the way he used to.
Andie sat down on the blanket and buried her feet in the sand, being careful not to let any of it touch her cut. As soon as Nancy came, she decided, she’d make herself go in. She looked down the dirt lane toward the cottage Nancy’s family was staying in, which she couldn’t see from here because it was around the bend, and waited. Other people were trickling onto the beach now, Mrs. Burke and her kids, who were too little to play with, and Mr. and Mrs. Leone, who practically lived on the beach. They put down their cooler and waved at Andie and her mother with their floppy brown arms. Andie’s mother said the Leones were the nicest people she’d ever met and would give you the shirt off their back—they did bring Tootsie Rolls and candy cigarettes for all the kids sometimes—and Andie figured this was why her mother was extra nice to their son when he came. Bruce Leone had a big booming laugh and such a perfect flat-top haircut that it looked like you could put things on his head and they wouldn’t fall off. He was a lot younger than all the other friends Andie’s parents had here, so Andie didn’t know whether to call him Mr. Leone or just Bruce. Mostly she didn’t call him anything. Whenever he came around, she’d sneak off into the water.
Paul and Libby ran out of the lake and up to the blanket, dripping water everywhere. “Cut it out,” Andie said, wrapping a towel around her shoulders. Paul leaned over her and shook his head so she’d get rained on even more. She tried to smack his leg but he jumped out of the way, and Andie’s mother said, “That’s enough, you two.” She stubbed out her cigarette and stood up, tugging at the bottom of her swimsuit. “I’m going in for a quick dip. Do you think you three can sit here for five minutes without fighting?”
“Sorry,” Paul said, but Andie could tell he didn’t mean it. He picked up a stick and started drawing Superman S’s all over the sand around the blanket.
Their mother walked off toward the water, and Libby followed with her pail and shovel. Every day she built a sandcastle and crushed it, then started all over again. If her friend Mary, Nancy’s little sister, was there, the two of them would work on it together, but Libby could play by herself for hours and not care. Andie wished she could think of stuff like that to do, something besides swimming and jumping off the pier that would pass the time when there was no one to be with. She and Paul and Libby had an inner tube and a raft that their father had blown up on the first day—“If you let the air out of these things, it’s your problem,” he’d warned them—and sometimes Andie would float around in one of them until she could feel her skin burning, but otherwise she’d let Nancy decide what to do because she had all the good ideas. At times like this, when Andie was waiting, the day felt as big and flat as the lake.
Her mother came out of the water with her short hair slicked back like a man’s. There was a white line around the top of her face where she wasn’t tanned, a line so perfect it looked like someone had drawn it there with a white crayon. It matched the big bright buttons on her navy-blue bathing suit, which Andie loved so much that she had tried it on a few days ago, slipping it over her own yellow suit, trying to imagine having a chest that would need those cups in the top that were as big as grapefruits. It seemed impossible that she ever would.
“That was refreshing,” said her mother. “It’s so warm already, I don’t know how you can be cold, Andie.”
Andie touched the skin around her scab. “I’m waiting for Nancy.”
Her mother ran a towel over her arms and said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you. They’re sick over there—Nancy, Mary, even little Steve. At least they were last night. After you were in bed, Mrs. Farrell came by to see if we had any Coke.”
Andie remembered then that she’d half-heard her mother talking to somebody last night. Their cottage was small—the three kids had to share a bedroom—and you could hear everything through the thin pine walls. Most nights, she’d listen to the sounds her mother made—her bare feet padding back and forth on the linoleum floor, the crack of metal when she’d yank the handle on a new tray of ice cubes, her matches striking—and she’d drift off to sleep as if her mother was singing to her. It was different when her father was there, with all the sounds doubled and the two voices rumbling along with them, and it kept Andie awake. She’d try not to listen, but sometimes her parents said things that made her heart thump: “Do you think I’m stupid?” and “Stop imagining things,” and “Why do you even bother coming up here?” She’d wrap the pillow around her head until the words became muffles and turned into something else—what she liked to imagine was a motorboat taking her across the lake.
She scratched at the edges of her cut. “Do the Farrells have the throw-ups?” she asked.
“I’m afraid so,” said her mother. “Let’s hope you kids don’t come down with it.”
Andie’s mouth filled with spit as she thought about how horrible it was to throw up. She felt sorry for Nancy, but she was kind of mad too, since now she’d have to get through this whole day by herself. She wouldn’t even be able to walk to Vinnie’s store later for bubblegum, unless she tagged along with Paul and his friends, and that was worse than not going.
She bent over her knee and looked at her scab, blackish-red and bumpy. She ran her fingers around its edges again, making it itch and hurt, knowing she should leave it alone but somehow unable to. Without meaning to she pulled up a corner of the scab, and with the little stab of pain came a trickle of fresh blood. She wiped at it, trying to make it stop, but instead the blood started dripping down her shin.
“Mom,” she said, holding out her leg.
Her mother looked over at the red streak, her forehead wrinkling above her sunglasses. “How did that happen?”
“Were you picking at it?”
“I couldn’t help it. It was itchy.” She looked down at the little river of blood flowing toward her ankle and said, “I need a band-aid.”
Her mother lit a cigarette and said, “If you go wash it off in the lake, I bet it’ll stop bleeding.” She took a sip of her coffee and put her face up to the sun.
Andie felt like crying all of a sudden, but she got up and walked to the water. The blood was all the way to her foot now, heading toward her toes. When she stepped into the lake, the water up to her ankle turned foggy for a second, but then it cleared so fast that it was almost as if there hadn’t been any blood. She crouched down and splashed her shin, watching the dark red turn pinkish before it disappeared, working her way up her leg until she got to the scab, where the blood still seeped. She was sure the water wouldn’t make it stop, but since she had to prove this to her mother, she bit her lip and dunked her knee as if she were genuflecting in church. The water didn’t sting after all, but as soon as she stood up, the blood started again.
She walked back to the blanket and stood in front of her mother. “Look. It didn’t work.”
Her mother put her sunglasses on top of her head and squinted at Andie’s leg. “Hm,” she said, “you really loosened that thing, didn’t you?” She took the back of Andie’s knee in her hand and peered at the front of it the way a doctor would, turning it from side to side. Andie lost her balance for a second and rested her hand on her mother’s freckled shoulder, the skin warm against her cool palm; she almost let go so her whole weight would crash down into her mother’s lap.
“Okay,” her mother agreed, “I guess you do need a band-aid.” She pulled the sunglasses back down over her eyes, forcing Andie to look at her own double reflection. “Can you walk up to the cottage by yourself?”
Andie thought about ripping the sunglasses off her mother’s face, but instead she just nodded.
“The band-aids are in my carrying case on the bathroom floor. Why don’t you bring a couple of extras back here to the beach in case we need them later.”
Andie pushed herself away from her mother and walked across the sand to the road. It was full of rocks, and with her bare feet she had to pick her way around them. She kept her eyes down, watching both her feet and the blood line traveling again from her knee toward the ground, as she weaved back and forth among the stones all the way up the hill. Her family’s place was at the top of it, the last one in a string of cottages that lined the road down and around the lake in one direction and off into the trees in the other. The cottages reminded Andie of Monopoly houses, they were so small and look-alike. They all had names—At Ease, Lazy Daze, Screened Inn—and theirs was Cozy Haven, spelled out in black letters above the entrance.
She pulled hard on the screen door and let it slap behind her. It was cooler inside and smelled like the woods. As she walked toward the bathroom, she left smudges of blood on the floor that looked a little bit like butterflies.
She wiped her leg with a wet washcloth and pawed through her mother’s case, which was crammed with extra packs of Chesterfields along with all the bathroom things, until she found the band-aids. She put three of them on her cut and took a handful of extras, like her mother had said, and headed back out. Maybe when her mother saw the blood-butterflies on the floor, which Andie decided not to wipe up, she’d finally feel bad.
No one was at their blanket when she got back to the beach. A lot more people had come out, including Bruce Leone, whose voice Andie could hear way out in the water. She was so startled that she forgot to breathe for a second. He was only ever here on Saturdays and Sundays, but this was Friday—which meant now she’d have to spend three whole days, instead of two, trying to hide from him.
In the water she saw Libby paddling around in the inner tube, and Paul was doing cannonballs off the pier, but Andie couldn’t see her mother anywhere. Some heads were bobbing out where it was deep, too far away to tell who they were. But then Andie heard her mother laugh and, squinting, spotted the short dark hair—right next to Bruce’s flat-top. They were splashing each other. Her mother turned and started swimming farther out, and then Bruce did too. Andie watched them, expecting them to turn around any second, but they kept going until they looked no bigger than water bugs.
Finally they stopped, so far away now that it seemed like they were halfway across the whole lake. But then they started swimming toward the shore, beating the water so hard that it splashed halfway to the sky—racing each other, Andie realized. Her mother was a good swimmer, but Bruce was bigger and she couldn’t keep up. Andie wanted her mother to win so that she’d hurry up and get back here to the blanket before Bruce did. Swim harder, she pleaded in her head. Even if her mother won the race, though, it probably wouldn’t make any difference, because Bruce would follow her over here and sit next to Andie and scare her with his hugs and his huge hands.
Andie sat down on the blanket, the band-aids pinching as she brought her legs up to her chest, and pulled a towel around herself. She ducked her head down, hoping Bruce would somehow be gone when she looked up again, even though she knew he wouldn’t be. The splashing sounds got closer and then stopped, and she heard the voices instead. She peeked out over her knees and saw the two of them walking toward her, panting and dripping. Her mother’s face was red right through her tan. Andie put her head back down so she wouldn’t have to look at Bruce.
In the dark little tent she’d made for herself, she could see her heartbeats pushing against her chest. Go away, go away, she chanted in time to the beats.
When Andie had tried to tell her mother that she didn’t like Bruce, her mother had frowned and asked why, and the only thing Andie could think to say was that he made her feel funny. “But he’s so friendly and fun,” her mother had said, “and he’s crazy about you kids.” He did play catch with Paul, and one time he helped Libby build a sandcastle that was so huge he made little flags for it out of straws. But Andie hated the way he played with her. He’d sneak up on her in the water and throw her over his shoulder, pretending he was a sea monster taking her down to his cave, only letting go of her when she was almost all the way underwater. Last week, he and one of his friends had stood in the shallow part of the lake and tossed her back and forth like a beachball. Each time she was in the air she had beat at it with her arms and legs, like the cartoon coyote on TV, knowing she’d break apart when she fell onto the hard lake bottom. Only when she started crying did they put her down. Then Bruce had said, “Aw, honey, we wouldn’t drop you” and picked her up and hugged her. And instead of putting her down again and leaving her alone, he’d carried her out into deeper water, dunking her up and down like people do with babies—his big square face in hers, his hands going up and down all over her back. By then she was too scared to even cry. “We were just having some fun,” he said, his voice so deep it buzzed against her chest. “Wasn’t it fun to fly a little bit?” He pulled her tighter, one hand moving across her bottom, and whispered, “I’d never hurt you.” The whisper gave her goosebumps everywhere. He smiled his big teeth at her and said, “Okay? Still friends?” When she didn’t answer he finally took her back to the shallow water and put her down. She ran to the blanket, hoping her mother had watched it all—hoping she’d tell Bruce to leave Andie alone from now on—but her mother was lying on her stomach with her eyes closed and hadn’t seen a thing.
“There she is,” Andie heard him say now. She still hadn’t looked up, but she could feel his eyes on her as he and her mother came closer. Then she felt the coolness coming off them as they stood over the blanket drying themselves off. “How are you today, kiddo?” he said to her head.
Andie pulled the towel tighter around herself. Maybe if she pretended he wasn’t there, he’d go away.
“She has a cut on her leg,” Andie’s mother said. “And Nancy’s sick, so this kiddo isn’t very happy today.”
“Oh, that’s no fun,” came the big voice. She felt him sit down next to her, and then he was peeking inside her towel-tent. “Anybody in there?”
She tried to turn her head away, her throat getting all tight, but in a don’t-be-rude voice her mother said, “Andie, can’t you say hello?”
“Hi,” she said into her lap.
She took off the towel and stood up. “Hi,” she said again, not looking at him. She could smell the lake on him, which for a second made her more sad than scared. She wanted the lake, the trees, the sky all to herself.
She picked up the raft and said to her mother, “I’m going in, okay?” She didn’t even care if her cut got wet.
“All right. Just don’t go out too far.”
As she carried the raft toward the water she heard her mother say, “I don’t know what’s gotten into her, she’s not usually so rude,” and Bruce say, “It’s okay, she’s a good kid,” which made Andie feel bad about wanting to get away from him. But only for a minute. Then it just felt lonely again to be the only one who didn’t like him.
In the shallow water she climbed onto the raft and paddled toward the pier, which was as deep as she was allowed to go. She could just stand up there, the water up to her chin. Her mother had been teaching her to swim, but she wasn’t good enough yet to go very far because she couldn’t get the breathing right and always got tired really fast.
She turned onto her back and closed her eyes against the sun. The water made gurgling noises under the raft, drowning out the voices from the beach. Listening to the gurgles, rocking on the water, she wished she wasn’t a kid so she could float all the way across the lake—away from Bruce and her mother, and Paul, who was so annoying, and Libby, who didn’t get so scared about things even though she was younger than Andie, and blood and the throw-ups, and Friday nights and Saturdays and Sundays. Now that the Farrells were sick, there wouldn’t be any card games or group cocktails later, and Andie’s parents would be stuck with just each other.
She let her hands fall into the water and, with her eyes still closed, imagined the raft was gone and she was swimming on her back to the far shore. She’d been learning how to do the crawl, but she liked the backstroke better because it was so much easier to breathe, and she could see the sky that way, and she loved how her arms moved like a windmill. It was so pretty when other people did it. She brought her arms up, one at a time, and reached for the water behind her, feeling the cool air on her wet skin before each arm dropped back down. Pretty soon there was a rhythm to it, like walking; like music.
She thought she heard someone calling her name and opened her eyes. Overhead she saw no treetops, just blue sky, and when she looked toward the beach, all the people on it were so far away they looked like leprechauns. She sat up, too fast, and fell into the water. When she came back up she grabbed the raft and held onto it as she tried to find the lake bottom with her feet, but she was in the deep, deep part where no light came through. Way back on the beach she could see her mother running into the water, but then Bruce went splashing right past her and dove in before he was even up to his waist.
Andie tried to climb back onto the raft, but she couldn’t get her legs high enough and kept sinking back into the water. To keep from going under, all she could do was stretch her arms across the raft as far as they’d go and pedal her legs. She kept her eyes on Bruce; he was pounding the water so hard that she couldn’t see any part of him inside all the splashing. She felt the band-aids on her knee coming loose and then falling off, but that didn’t matter now that her throat was squeezing shut and it was getting hard to breathe. She could see her mother standing back in the shallow water, watching what was happening with both hands over her mouth.
All that kicking underwater was making Andie so tired that she stopped pedaling and let her legs dangle, keeping her head up by leaning into her arms. It was taking Bruce forever to get to her, and yet she dreaded the moment when he’d take hold of her—she could already feel his big hands on her body—and wished her mother was coming instead.
But now here he came. His splashes hit her in the face as he caught up to where she was, and then he stopped swimming and held onto the raft on the other side. He was breathing hard, his face boiling red. He looked around for a second and then tried to smile at her. “Listen, kiddo,” he said through all the panting, “the best thing is if you can climb back on this raft so I can pull you in that way.”
Andie shook her head, panic taking her voice away until she somehow said, “I can’t.”
“Then I’ll help you. Okay? No other way to do it.” He looked down into the water and then back at her. “We’re both over our heads here, so it might take a few tries.” He half-frowned, half-smiled at her. “Deal?”
Andie nodded, not knowing what else to do; it was getting even harder to breathe now with all the water pressing against her chest, her heart beating like crazy inside it. As Bruce moved around behind her, she fixed her eyes on her faraway mother and forced herself not to cry.
“Here we go,” came his voice, and then his hands were around her waist. He pushed her up, but the raft floated out of reach, and they sank back into the water together. “Whoops,” he said into her ear. From behind, he circled one arm around her middle, pulling her right up against his own middle as he reached for the raft with his other hand. She could feel his legs pumping underneath them, her own legs so useless now.
He brought the raft close and said, “Let’s try again. When I push you up, do you think you could jump a little?”
She nodded, even though she wasn’t sure she could. It felt like all the energy had drained out of her and sunk to the bottom of the lake.
“Tell you what, though. Let’s get you into a better position.” He told her to hold onto the raft while he shifted her so that she was stretched out on her stomach. One of his hands stayed there on her tummy while the other one went around to the back of her legs. Then the hand on her legs moved up and stopped at her bottom. It touched the bare skin where her bathing suit had inched up, going from there to her thighs and then all the way up in between her legs.
Andie gasped, the knot in her throat breaking loose. She tried to cry out, but her voice had no sound. She went stiff, waiting, the tears starting now.
He moved his hand all over the part of her that no one else was supposed to touch. She tried to push her legs together, but it was no use, his hand was like a brick that she couldn’t budge. She didn’t know why he was doing this—it had nothing to do with rescuing her—but since she couldn’t make it stop, all she could do was cry. She felt her voice coming back as she cried harder—enough, maybe, for her mother to hear her. “Mom!” she called, as loud as she could.
The hand jerked away, just as her mother cupped her own hands around her mouth and shouted back to her, “It’s okay, you’re safe.”
“No!” Andie tried to tell her, but then Bruce said, “It’s all right, sweetie, I was just trying to get a hold of you.” He was breathing hard. She squeezed her eyes shut, and her legs too, as she braced herself for wherever his hands would go next. The one under her stomach moved around to her side as the other one—the bad one—touched her back. She felt sick, her mouth even starting to water; she was going to throw up right here in the lake. But then, moving so lightly that it almost tickled, the bad hand went sideways and held onto her waist.
“Okay,” Bruce said, “here’s what we’ll do.” Andie opened her eyes; the trees spun away, the beach coming into full view as he turned her so that her back was to him. “Put your feet here”—he placed one foot and then the other on his stomach—“and when I count to three, you push off as hard as you can. Do you think you can do that?” She nodded, bending her knees; his stomach was a hard, slippery rock under her feet.
“That’s it, good girl.” His hands slid down over her hips and she stiffened again, but then she heard him counting and understood that this was as far as the hands would go. When he got to two she pulled herself in—her legs a coiled spring ready for release—and on three, she pushed off of him with all the energy she had left.
And then she was up and out of the water.
As she left his hands, she stuck out her arms and flew. Even though she was only in the air for a second, it was the longest second of her entire life. Everything held still—the water, the raft, her racing heart—and for that one second, there was nothing in the world except her and the air. She was a part of it, weightless, her arms like wings. She wasn’t crying anymore; she wasn’t even breathing. Her fear fell away, along with everything else, because she had flown right out of her body.
In bed that night, her knee throbbing under fresh band-aids, Andie listened to her mother telling her father what had happened at the lake. But what she said was only half right. It was true that Bruce had saved Andie, but her mother was wrong that the reason Andie was so upset when she finally got back to the beach was because she had almost drowned. That wasn’t it at all.
Beyond Paul and Libby’s sleep-breathing, Andie heard her mother’s voice changing as she finished the story about the almost-drowning and started asking her father questions—about why he was so late getting here, what was his excuse this time, couldn’t he even make an effort to see his kids before they went to bed? Her father’s voice was so quiet that Andie couldn’t make out what he was saying, she could only hear the ice cubes clinking in his glass. But then her mother’s glass slammed down onto the table and she said in an almost-shout, “Who is she?”
Andie rolled onto her stomach and buried her head under the pillow. Her knee rubbed against the mattress and she could feel the cut opening again, the warm blood seeping into the band-aids. There was nothing she could do to stop it except try to lie perfectly still. She listened to her heart pounding in her ears, felt it beating in her cut, and forced herself not to notice anything else. She went back in her mind to the raft and the backstroke—to that rhythm she had found while moving under the big sky, her arms making a perfect windmill. But then she felt herself falling into the water again, and saw Bruce coming for her.
She pulled the pillow tighter around her head and squeezed her legs together.
In her mind, she made it all go different: some other pair of hands, strong and invisible, took hold of her in the water and pushed her high into the air. She stretched out her wing-arms and flew, but she didn’t come back down again. She kept on going, over the raft and the lake and even over the trees. She saw it all disappear underneath her: the sandy beach, the dirt road, Cozy Haven and everything in it—the blood-butterflies, the icy drinks, her angry mother and silent father, her sleeping brother and sister.
Her own body there in the bed.
She left them all behind as she flew on, higher and higher, away.
Cynthia Dockrell has been an editor at various publications over the years, though she now devotes her time to writing. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, and The Boston Globe, among others, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives near Boston and is currently at work on a novel.