To the Town, To the Swings

Submitted into Contest #155 in response to: Set your story in a kids’ playground, or at a roundabout.... view prompt

0 comments

Friendship Fiction

Sol needed time to think. Recently, too much of her life had absorbed a precarious instability, and her downloaded nature soundtrack couldn’t stop her mind from pinballing. She broke her routine that morning, foregoing herbal tea and podcasts for fresh air and real-life waves. She toed on her faded, striped flip flops, grabbed her keys, and shoved them into her the pocket of her once dark-blue jeans. As she closed the door behind her, she ran her fingers over the weathered, wooden surface and heard her dad admonish her for the grooves and flakes. She promised herself she’d paint it tomorrow—the bright green he liked would do. 


Her walk to the beach took her past Mr. Dale’s grocery store, the burnt sunshine yellow awning snapping as the automatic door opened and closed, and around the back of Mandy’s café where the smell of coffee stained the tables and the air. She nodded to Summer, the neighborhood tabby, and ducked as Joey, the paperboy, lofted Sunday’s edition over her head. All around her, the town blinked awake. Even the breeze stretched, lifting the hair off Sol’s neck for a brief respite.


Crest Point had the kind of heat that teetered between the regret of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow, a punishment juridical in its impartiality. Sol almost found herself wishing she’d stayed home with her blissful air conditioning. But then she cut left onto the boardwalk, and the tufts of brush gave way to cool white sand and a rush of waves. She kicked off her flip flops and cuffed her jeans twice over. Then, she stepped down, the grains shifting beneath her feet. Although she had intended to head straight to the waterfront, she found herself walking in parallel, playing chicken with the waves. 


When she had left the town for college, she thought she wouldn’t go back. What could its quiet shudders and unforgiving heat offer a girl craving sweeping architecture and opportunity? But then her dad got sick six months ago, and she surprised herself, not even questioning the return trip. In a matter of hours, she’d booked a one-way ticket, packed her bags, and locked her cramped apartment. It hadn’t occurred to her during the bus, train, two connecting flights, and second bus ride to Crest Point that maybe she’d stay longer than a month or two in the place she’d once left behind without a second thought. 


After some time, she made it to her destination. The sun glinted off the white metal arches of the swing set, and sand slowly spilled down the blue slide. She stepped under the monkey bars and ran her fingers over them, arms over her head. Then she grabbed hold of the roundabout, sending it spinning with her thoughts. She’d helped her dad move into his temporary assisted apartment earlier that week. They’d fought about it, but she promised she’d take care of the house in his absence. It wasn’t a permanent thing, she told herself. He’d be back in no time. Of course, she didn’t know what “no time” meant, but she hoped it wasn’t long. Meanwhile, she kept up Belle’s flower shop in his absence, suffering through a crash course on tulip bulbs and trimming roses. Her fingers still stung from the thorns, and she couldn’t get the soil out from under her nails. 


She took a seat on one of the swings, looping her arms around the linked chains. As she stared out at the dappled water, she slowly pushed herself back, letting gravity gently propel her forward again. She’d been coming to this playground since before she could walk. Her dad called it the best seat in the house, and they’d often bring food to eat as the sun set. She hadn’t come here since she’d been back; the flower shop, maintaining the house, the clients she left behind in Boston, and her dad’s rapidly worsening condition kept her busy. She slowly dug her big toe into the sand, creating a small hole. 


“Morning.”


Sol turned around to see Mandy, two coffee cups in hand. Her best friend’s seaside appearance didn’t surprise Sol. She’d long ago accepted that Mandy, with her streaked auburn hair and flowing skirts, had a sixth sense for Crest Point, from what her customers wanted to eat or drink to the whereabouts of other people. As Mandy settled into the neighboring swing, she offered Sol one of the cups, the mingled scent of coffee and sea salt a sinful promise.

 

“I stopped,” Sol said with a wave.


Mandy arched an eyebrow.


“Fine.”


They sipped their drinks in the foreground of the waves, Sol savoring each mouthful. She had stopped drinking coffee when she went to Boston, opting for her now-customary herbal tea because her clients preferred it. It had started to occur to Sol how much of her personality she’d sculpted and how quickly it unraveled in her hometown. From the chipped French manicure to swapping pumps for flip flops to drinking coffee on the beach. She could hear Juliette’s gasp—the caffeine!—as she took another drink. “Thanks for meeting me here,” she said. 


Mandy’s lips turned upward slightly, and she winked one of her gold-speckled green eyes. “Welcome.”


As they swung slowly, their history swung with them. They’d grown up in Crest Point together, joined at the hip from middle school to the end of high school. Although they’d lost touch here and there when Sol went to college, they reconnected when she returned to help her dad. Sol never asked if Mandy cared that Sol left. She’d always assumed her friend knew it had nothing to do with her, but they’d never talked about it. 


“How’s your dad?” Mandy asked, breaking the comfortable silence.


Sol wrapped her hands around the cup. “He won’t say.” 


Mandy nodded. “Sounds like Alan.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her pierced ear. “Have you heard from Juliette?”


“She’s hanging onto her reputation by a thread,” Sol laughed. “She made such a big deal out of supporting her employees, she can’t lose face now.”


Sol had always thought the sun smiled when Mandy smiled. True to form, when Mandy’s grin spread across her face, the sunlight danced on the water. “You’ve been here a while.”


“I know.” Neither one of them had expected that. 


“Think you’ll stay?”


Sol pushed back slightly, angling her swing towards Mandy. “I don’t know.” Recently, she’d began thinking about what would happen if she sold her apartment. She’d make good money on it given the new market rates. And she could always do part of her job remotely and travel if she needed to. “Are you not working today?” She didn’t think the town could survive without Mandy’s guiding hand—or her café’s coffee.


Mandy waved off the question. “I can get back in a bit. Taylor’s covering the opening rush.” She kicked Sol’s leg, her anklet jingling. “You’ve got that face.”


“What face?”


She shrugged. “The I-might-leave-and-never-come-back face.”


Sol winced, even though she knew Mandy didn’t mean it to sting. “I’m sorry.”


“It’s OK,” Mandy said.


But it wasn’t. Sol knelt to anchor her coffee in the sand. “After—”


“I know.”


“I couldn’t.”


“You don’t need to explain.” Mandy twisted her coffee holder around the cup, her café’s logo disappearing and reappearing with each rotation.


“But I want to.” 


"It’s fine, Mare.”


Hearing the childhood nickname rattled her. Sol could not have had a complete college and Boston transformation without also changing her name, so she adopted Sol instead of Marisol, shedding her Crest Point identity as she shed more letters of her name. Now, only Mandy maintained the nickname, and she used it sparingly. “Mandy—”


“Seriously,” Mandy said, placing her cup upright in the sand and pushing back on her swing. “We’ve already talked about it.”


“Have we?”


“What is there to say?” Her hair flew out behind her as she pumped her legs, going higher and higher. 


“I’m sorry.”


Sol watched her best friend swing, watched as Mandy threw her head back and laughed. “I forgot how much fun this is,” she called.


Sol waited until Mandy started her descent to push back her swing, vigorously pumping to keep up with her friend. As she swept down, the blood rushed to her head. But she ignored it, and they swung in sync, suddenly seventeen again when they’d snuck out of their houses to meet up at the beach. 


“Try this,” Mandy said, handing Sol a bottle. “I grabbed it from the fridge on my way out.”


Sol’s laugh bubbled out of her as she watched the drink foam. She took a swig. “How do people drink that?” She asked.


Mandy giggled. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s an acquired taste.”


“I think that’s supposed to be wine.” Sol dug around in her backpack and unearthed an opaque bottle. “Let’s try it.”


They took turns sipping the red. 


“Ugh, that’s disgusting,” Mandy said, taking another sip. 


“Then why are you drinking it?” Sol laughed, grabbing the beer. 


“I’m hoping I can acquire the taste in one night,” Mandy giggled.


They traipsed through the sand towards the playground, bottles in one hand and bags in the other. When they settled on the swings, Mandy looked up at the cascade of stars above, resting her head against one of the chains. 


“I can’t believe we’re going to college soon,” she said. 


“I know,” Sol replied. “Think we’ll like it?”


“You will,” Mandy said. She swallowed another sip of wine with a slight crease in her brow. “You’ll love it.”


“What about you?” Sol drank more of the beer. “Switch?” She asked. “I don’t want you to suffer drinking that alone.”


Mandy nodded, and they traded bottles. “Oh I’ll like it alright,” she said. “But I’ll miss Crest Point.”


Crest Point didn’t run through Sol’s veins the way it did Mandy’s, but Sol would still miss the town in her own way. “I know,” she said, drinking more wine. “I heard the stars don’t glow the same.”


Mandy hummed, swaying backward and forward in her swing. “Stars and sea,” she whispered, an ode to the unofficial motto of Crest Point. “I wonder if they’ll look the same when we come back.”


“They’ll wink,” Sol said giggling. “After all, they’ll know everything we do—or who we do.”


The girls devolved into laughter, drinking and swinging and teasing each other. 


“Oh I feel it,” Mandy said, putting her head in her hands. “I can’t tell if the world is spinning from the drinks or the swings.”


Sol teetered in her seat, tried to sit back, and toppled off the swing. “Ow,” she said, landing on the sand in a tumble of limbs. 


“Are you OK?” Mandy asked.


“I can’t hear you,” Sol said, grabbing one of Mandy’s legs, pulling her off her swing. “You’re too far away.” 


Mandy swatted at Sol, and Sol dodged it with a cry of indignation. After a minute of arguing about who pushed whom or who started it—Mandy thought it was obviously Sol, Sol thought they should blame the swing—they fell onto their backs, sand coating their hair. 


“I’ll miss you,” Sol said. And it was true. Crest Point had the pull because of her family and because of Mandy.


Mandy grabbed Sol’s hand. “I’ll miss you too. But we’ll visit each other and come back for the holidays.”


Sol nodded. “I know.” Suddenly, she felt her stomach turn. “Oh no,” she said, sitting up. 


“Oh no, what?” Mandy asked.


“I need to—”


“Go.”


“Where?”


“The water,” Mandy said. “Otherwise it’ll smell here for weeks.”


The girls rushed to the waves, and Mandy held Sol’s hair back. After a few minutes, Sol sat down, cupping water to put over her face and neck. Mandy settled beside her. 


“Guess I can check first drunk vomit off my list.”


Mandy nodded, her eyes surveying the waterfront. “Mare,” she said, something catching her gaze. “Mare, what is that?”


Sol turned to where Mandy pointed and saw what looked like a mass or, really, a lump, moonlight casting it in a flesh-colored light. “A whale?” She asked, squinting. “But it’s too small.”


Mandy stood up, “Maybe it needs help.”


Sol tried to grab her hand. “We won’t be of any help,” she said. “I’m not strong enough anyway, and I’m drunk.”


Mandy took Sol’s hand and dragged her up. “Come on,” she said. “We have to look.”


It was a long walk. Sol always thought Mandy had unusually good eyesight, but this confirmed her suspicions. When they got closer, the smell preceded the shape, which was, at this point, definitely smaller than a whale.


“I’m going to be sick again,” Sol said.


“Mare,” Mandy said. “It’s a person.”


“What?” Sol asked, trying to keep the contents of her stomach in her stomach. 


“Look,” Mandy said, moving closer.


Sol threw up again. “I can’t,” she said. “It’s rancid.”


Mandy moved closer to the body and turned it over. “I don’t recognize him,” she said. The stench didn’t seem to faze her, nor did the man’s swollen features. She searched his waterlogged pockets. 


Sol was sure if she had anything left to throw up, she would. “Mandy, we need to go,” she said.


“I can’t just leave him,” Mandy said. “How are we going to contact his family?”


Sol wobbled over to her. “We’re not,” she said. “We’re going to go. Now.”


Mandy spotted the man’s necklace and grabbed it. Dog tags. Army. “Anderson Brook,” she said. “What happened to you?”


“Mandy,” Sol said. “We need to go.”


'Mandy glared at Sol. “We need to tell someone.”


“Then we have to tell them why we were at the beach,” Sol said. “We have to admit we’ve been drinking and who knows what would happen then?”


Mandy unhooked the chain and slid one of the dog tags off the links. “So we tell them,” she said, clasping the necklace back around his neck. She assessed the body. “And we have to do it tonight while he’s still recognizable.”


“I can’t afford to tell colleges about an underage drinking incident,” Sol said.


Mandy turned the dog tag over in her hand. She stood up and nodded. “Then I’ll go alone.”


Sol slowed her swing down, the wind that rushed in her ears suddenly subsiding. “I should have come with you,” she said. “That night.”


Mandy dragged her feet in the sand, slowing herself to a stop. “I don’t blame you,” she said. “You were worried.”


“I was a coward,” Sol corrected. “It’s not the same thing.”


Mandy shrugged. “It’s been ten years.”


“Still,” Sol said. “I’ve never properly apologized. I should have come with you to the station. That’s what a true best friend would have done.”


Mandy hopped off the swing, stepped over to the roundabout, and spun it halfheartedly. “A true friend would have been around when my mom died,” she said. “Instead of sending a bouquet I know your dad made for you.”


Sol joined her by the roundabout. “You’re right,” she said. The weight of her failures hung heavily with the heat on her shoulders. She glanced at her friend’s face, trying to catch her eyes. Mandy wouldn’t look at her. “I messed up a lot of our friendship.”


“You ran away,” Mandy said. She turned to Sol with a sad ambivalence. “And instead of finding yourself you became someone else.” She shook her head, then tied her hair back with a flick of a hair tie. “I should get back to work. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you with your dad.” Mandy walked past Sol and gently squeezed her shoulder.


Sol grabbed her hand, “Can I come by ‘round the café tomorrow before heading to the flower shop for a cup of coffee?" 


Mandy smiled gently, pulled her hand from Sol's, and walked toward the boardwalk, her patterned skirt twisting around her legs. 


Sol’s gut turned. For so long, she’d tried to run away from Crest Point, from the lapping of its waves and the heaviness of its heat. It wasn’t until recently that she realized she’d been running away from Mandy too. After all, they were tethered, the two of them, to the town, to the swings, to that night, to each other. 


“Mandy,” Sol said, shouting after her friend as she started walking to the boardwalk.“Mandy you can’t!”


Mandy turned back to Sol. “I don’t have anything to lose.”

July 23, 2022 01:15

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

0 comments