Little Mira doesn't hear her mother calling. The sun is orange like dying flames and the trees are bending and twisting towards the big house but Mira doesn't see or feel all this for she's underneath the water. With nothing but cold water around her, Mira holds her breath and counts to ten. She's learning, as she's been told, how to breathe underwater and still be alive.
When her head bubbles up to the surface, she hears the sound of her mother screaming her name. It's high-pitched and dreamy and Mira giggles as she steps out of the water. The ground is slippery but she holds on. It's cold and it's getting dark. Before long, her mother's voice is joined by a lighter one. Mira likes the way they scream her name, forcefully, with a tinge of panic.
It's Joe the dog that finds her. He begins to bark. Later, the mother and the sister find Mira, back against a tree.
"Oh my goodness. Mira...you scared me. You went into the water alone?"
Mira feels the pressure of a hug as it crashes against her. Her mother is warm and tender. The sister stands farther away and looks at Mira for a while.
"You gave everyone quite the scare."
Mira pulls away from her mother's hold. "I only went for a swim."
"Alone?" the sister almost screams. Her voice is strained and Mira knows.
"But you do that all the time," Mira says.
"You are too young for this, Mira," the mother tugs her along. They walk silently down the path and the wet tree stumps to the big house. The lights are on. It's nighttime now.
Mira runs up to her room and closes the door. Beneath her pillow, she takes out the small note and strikes out number one:
Then she pulls off her wet clothes and steps into the bathroom. The house is warm. Her feet are dirty so she washes them first. She hears the knock on her door. When she pulls it open, her sister walks in.
"Why did you go into the water?" she asks, shuffling her feet.
Mira can tell that she's nervous but she doesn't understand why. "Tom says I should learn how to breathe underwater."
"Tom is a bad influence on you," she whispers, setting herself against the windowpane. "Mother was going mad looking for you. For goodness sake, you are just eleven."
"I am smarter than you think, Debby."
They don't talk for a while. Debby opens the window and stares at the stars. The silver dots assemble themselves before her, taking the shape of a unicorn.
"Do you believe," Debby begins, "in happily ever after?"
Mira curls up on the floor. "I don't know. I think so. I mean, dad and mom aren't together anymore but at least the conversations aren't awkward and they laugh together at lunch."
"Perhaps you are right," Debby agrees. "Whenever I look at the stars, I feel a kind of sadness."
"Are we supposed to be talking about this?"
And yet Debby doesn't leave immediately. The stars shine so brightly that even Mira gets up from the floor to join her by the window. They don't talk or hold hands or look at each other but Mira suddenly feels the warmth of being happy.
Then Debby leaves and Mira sits on her bed. She stares at her hands and laughs. She's pale. She's cold. She takes cover under the sheets and counts the stars on her walls. They are over twenty-three stars in her room, brightly placed above her head and as Mira struggles against the light, she thinks about her father.
It isn't new going back and forth between remembering and forgetting. Mira remembers her father with his brown eyes and smokers tooth and she remembers laughing and not thinking about being underwater. When the fights began, Mira had known it would fall away. That the feeling of security would diminish before her eyes. And she was right. It had, for a while. It was getting better.
Mira falls asleep at midnight but wakes to the sound of creaking floorboards. She knows that it's Debby the second she jumps down from the bed. Taking her gloves from the table, Mira silently opens her door and tiptoes outside. It's dark and empty and the air as it touches Mira feels dirty. But Mira doesn't mind. She follows the angry bushes farther away from home until she reaches the river. It's quiet except for Debby's low sobs.
"It's late, you know," Mira tells her.
Debby lifts herself off the ground and turns around to meet her sister. "What do you think you are doing? Go back home."
"Why aren't you ever happy?" Little Mira asks. She folds her hands across her chest and mouths an awkward apology. It rests in the silence like an overdue welcome.
"I am happy," Debby whispers and sits down by the water. Mira joins her. They stretch out their slender legs into the water, the cold burning them. "I mean, I can be happy. What am I saying?"
"Aren't you like a little too young to be saying that?" Mira inquires, adjusting her scarf.
Debby laughs but it is strange. The corners of her mouth pull backward and Mira finds it unusual. "I am eighteen, Mira. Most girls my age live in their apartments, smoking weed."
Mira looks down at her feet. She's getting too cold. "Mom says smoking is bad. That smoking could kill you."
"And dad's been smoking since before you were born. The old man's still as strong as hell."
"He still looks crooked though."
They share laughter in this knowledge; laughter brought forth by the discovery of certain things. It is true what Mira says and even Debby admits it. But Debby doesn't know which wrecks him most: the consistency of his smoking habits or the failure of a marriage. Perhaps the latter has always been the problem.
"Why do you think dad is never home?" Mira asks. She can't feel her legs by this time but she doesn't say it. She wants to hear everything and to be guided by the understanding of it.
Debby shrugs and flips her legs in the water.
"I think happily ever after happens in movies. I don't think mom is happy." Mira says.
"And neither is dad," Debby adds.
It takes a while, an entire minute before Mira finally knows what to say. "Do you think dad was right in leaving? That first time?"
Debby answers quickly, almost as though she's been aching to say something. "Nothing justifies his leaving, Mira. No matter what, we don't abandon family."
"But mom kept saying he hurt her and drinks and he smokes."
"She hurt him too, Mira," Debby doesn't know why she's telling her little sister all these things but she wants to. No, aches too. "Mom is pretty judgmental. She pushed him too hard sometimes."
"I think she was just trying to make him a better person," Mira says. The cold has crept up to her knees. She can't feel anything at this point.
"You are right, Mira. I'm not happy."
Half an hour or maybe more has passed before Debby says this. The water before them has gone white. Ethereal.
"Why?" Mira asks and takes off her gloves. One of her fingernails has broken and she nurses it with the kind of sadness only found at airports.
"Because I'm different," she answers, wide-eyed. "Because mom is too judgmental and dad doesn't care."
"How are you different, Debby?"
Debby laughs again and Mira breaks eye contact. There's something animalistic in the laughter. "I like a girl."
"I am. And I'm afraid mom is going to push me away like she pushed dad."
Mira closes her eyes and imagines a future with Debby out of it. It's the closest thing to death, too unnatural. And she doesn't exactly know how to feel about Debby's secrets. "Have you told them?"
"I'm planning to. Maybe next week."
Mira, so young and naive, pulls her hands down to feel the grass and lets a tear escape. "How do you know you are gay? Like what if tomorrow you fall in love with the boy at the barbershop?"
"You just know, Mira. It's not math. You just know."
Mira opens her eyes now. She's just a child. "Am I gay?"
"We shouldn't talk about this," Debby says, "let's go back home."
Debby comes to the dining room late in the morning. Mira gives her a smile that's rough and pale and Debby shrugs and sits down. The orange juice tastes bland, she says, sipping from her cup.
"It's good, Deb. Stop trying to make everything sad," the mother says.
Mira looks at Debby again. They share an awkward smile. And then breakfast ends.
Two hours later, as Mira is telling Debby about her summer camp, they hear the screams.
"Another argument?" Mira asks.
Debby rolls her eyes. "I can't stand it anymore."
She leaves Mira in the hallway and walks into the living room. She can't tell why they are arguing or why there's a broken vase on the floor but somehow she's reached a decision.
"I'm gay," Debby says, reddening.
The screams stop. Her mother stares her down, breathing heavily.
"What do you mean, Debby?" the father asks.
"I am gay."
The mother puts her hands on her hair and tugs. "You can't be serious. My children cannot be..."
She can't finish the words. It's too hard, too strange. And yet Debby knows the words by heart. In the end, she was different.
"I don't believe it," the father chuckles and sways. "Like how's that even possible?"
"I kissed someone and I just know that she's the one for me."
The mother staggers before Debby and hits her face as hard as she can. Debby falls to the floor. "I will purge you of this ridiculousness."
The father helps her up and embraces her. Debby lets him hold her, knowing that they are both broken and judged. "I love you," he whispers into her hair. When he lets her go, she can see the tears in his eyes.
"Go into your room this instant," the mother screams, "And you can't go out unless you are purged of your sins."
Mira is standing by the doorway, listening, learning. When her father reddens, Mira knows another fight is about to start. For a minute, she thinks about running away. For a second, she knows it is wrong. So she stands there and listens.
The father says, "You need to leave her alone, Amber. At least she's being honest."
"That is honesty?" Amber hits her hands on a table. A pendant falls to the floor and breaks. "She doesn't know what she's saying."
"She's an adult," he challenges, angry, sad. "And if she is happy with her choice then we should stand by her."
"I can't believe you. You weren't here when I went through hell raising them. You come back to tell me this?"
There is resignation in his eyes and voice when he says, "I think she's happy."
Mira loves the silence that falls when he says that. Debby is not crying.
Amber hits him against his chest. Hard. "You need to leave. Don't tell me how to raise my daughters. You left. Remember?"
Mira follows Debby to her room. "You won't leave right?"
Debby shrugs and curls up on her bed.
Mira runs out into the hallway, sobbing. It's hours before she opens the door outside. She runs down to the river, with the darkness behind her. The riverbank is empty. There's no Debby. Mira enters the water. It's freezing. Mira goes under, counting to ten, counting to twenty. Above her the stars sparkle. And she's thinking about Debbie and no one else.
Little Mira doesn't hear her sister calling but she feels the arms as they bring her out of the water. She's frozen, out of her body, dead, but she knows that Debby is with her, kissing her cheeks, crying.
They lie on the grass and watch the stars. Debby coughs and raises her hands above her head. "I don't want to lose you, Mira. So, don't go into the water again."
Mira's voice is low. "Don't you know that being underwater is beautiful? There's peace and in there, there's no fighting."
"You are too young to be saying this," Debby replies.
Mira opens her eyes. The stars break before her eyes. They stretch far until she fears they'll fall against them.
"How will I know if I'm like you?" Mira asks.
"Let's not talk about that, Mira."
"But you won't go, right?"
"And abandon you?"
Mira feels the peace envelop her. She's warmer now. Better.