She took a breath. It stopped in her throat, stalling as if waiting for her to taste it. She exhaled.
Sunlight flooded the room through the curtain-less windows. Empty windows. Empty walls. Full boxes played hide and seek under the blankets and in the closet. A distant shout and running feet. Laughter.
She took a breath. She exhaled.
The door banged open, shuddering against the abused spring. She jumped, and her sister grinned. “You coming out for dinner?”
She rubbed her finger along the ridge of her suitcase. She mustered a glare. “Give me a minute, will you? I just got home.”
“Okay, okay.” Her sister raised her hands, conceding but still grinning. “Just don’t mess up the guest room. It’s pristine.”
She rolled her eyes as her sister let out a cackle and darted back down the hallway.
The door closed. The suitcase fell to the floor. She took a breath. She exhaled.
Twice she almost entered her brother’s new room. Thrice she went to the drawer that had once been hers.
In the bathroom, she almost asked where her hairbrush was before remembering that she had left it at the apartment.
“Home,” the air around her breathed.
“Gone,” exhaled the room. Empty windows. Empty walls.
Kisses and hugs and promises to return home. Home. She hugged them tighter. The rising sun blinded her till she put down the visor in her car. The empty apartment greeted her at nightfall.
The sun glinted off the water, off the sweat from the unseasonably hot June weather. She ducked her head under, dark water muffling the shouts and laughter of a family with young kids nearby. When she resurfaced, the mother and daughter playing frisbee had come closer, the daughter glancing at her. Catching each other’s eyes, they smiled awkwardly.
The daughter fidgeted and gestured towards the hat and towel on the rocky beach. “Is that yours?”
“You’re from the coast!” The daughter smiled brightly, bouncing once in excitement. “I thought so. You act like there’s sharks in the water even though you’re actually in the water, and I thought for sure that you had to be from the coast because they have all sorts of horrible stuff over there, and you’ve got that hat from California, and I knew it!”
She resisted the urge to duck her head underwater again. “I’m not actually from the coast. We visited a friend there once. I just don’t like dark water. I forget that this is only Iowa.”
The mother turned to her more fully, both her and the daughter frowning. “This is Minnesota.”
“Oh! Right, err . . . I just moved here.” She laughed nervously. She gestured towards the nearest island. “I think I’m going to . . .” She gave them a polite smile, which they returned, so she left. Under the water, she opened her eyes. The green dark grey below her stretched out into black. Michigan, she could not help but think, Michigan and swimming in a bay of the Great Lakes with her sisters. There had been a thunderstorm that day, drums rolling across the sky and reverberating in their little valley. No lightning, so they had pushed their luck and walked the beach and ended up in the water – as they always did.
The sandy slope of the island approached increasingly quick, but she dared not put her feet down in case there was nothing there. Finally, finally, her hands hit dirt, and she scrabbled against the incline until she was on her knees and then her feet and then out of the water. She stumbled forward. She strode. Once around the island, out of sight of the mother, the daughter, the family with young kids, she took a breath. She exhaled.
Grapevines covered the island, draped over the rocks and sand like the kudzo in Florida. They had an uncle down there, and in that state at least, they had not swum in every open water source. Puddles, though. Puddles, they had run through and jumped in and splashed and crawled on their bellies like snakes through the sand and pines needles. They would see a crocodile for sure if it was there, their mother had said, so puddles were free game.
Heart slowing, she looked out to the other side of the lake, considerably farther away than the shore she had come from. Three dark shapes hovered in the water, clay brown against the algae green. Fish, just like ones she had seen before in Wisconsin while swimming in a river. It was more of a stream really, but there hadn’t been many options in that town. The stream itself was deep. It was as if a giant had taken his finger and drawn in the earth as a child does in sand. There was no beach, no shallows, just a jump into the abyss.
Fear had immobilized her. Her youngest sister slid in first, testing for rocks and ducking under for the depth. By her measure, there was no bottom. Her youngest sister and then the younger one had jumped in again and again, and finally she could breathe. She could breathe, so she closed her eyes and jumped.
She walked back to the other side of the island, the one facing the closer shore. Somehow, she made it back to land. She wrapped her towel around herself, put the hat on her head knowing it would get damp. She waved at the mother and daughter, glanced over the family. She returned to the apartment.
“Thank you for coming.”
Her mother relaxed at the words. “Thanks for feeding us dinner. You didn’t need to do that, you know. We could’ve gone out to eat.”
“I know,” she shrugged, hand holding onto her mother’s forearm, “but it was nice to have you here.”
Her mother leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. “All right, but let me at least help with dishes.”
Well, she certainly wasn’t going to argue about that.
Her sisters’ laughter overlapped with her brother’s whining. Her father shuffled through the few scrapbooks she had brought with.
“I’ll get you more pictures,” her mom said, vigorously rubbing the spaghetti bowl.
“And I think you need some more kitchen towels.”
Her mother paused, looking at her. “You can tell me no.”
She took a breath, pecked her mother on the cheek again. “I know.”
Her mother’s smile returned. “Can I reorganize your cupboards, too? It’s just, I mean, if you put that set of plates over here, and-“
“Really? You can tell me-“
“Really.” She gave her mother another kiss, and her mother tried not to smile wider.
Kisses and hugs and promises to visit her again. They hugged her tightly. The rising sun shone off the roof of the van as they left.
She walked back to the apartment. The dishes lay drying on a bathroom towel. Her cupboards were closed. The scrapbooks rested on the wrong bookshelf.
She took a breath. On the exhale, she smiled.