Picture a middling summer. Perhaps a sultry Saturday. Heavy sky. Heat that suspends time.
Like most of the neighborhood kids, you're at least 3 freeze pops deep by noon. Your tongue looks positively rotted from the steady flow of dyed ice crystals. There's a half-faded glitter butterfly tattoo on your forearm from a birthday party. It doesn't matter whose party. You'll forget soon enough.
The suburban streets are scattered with lovesick teenagers driving just to drive - that is, to turn on just the right song and roll down the window just in time for someone else to catch a rapturous chorus. A quick way to fortify one's existence in the liminal space of adolescence.
But you don't know how to drive. You're 11 (almost 12). You have a vague, innocent crush on Niall from One Direction, but only because your friends pushed you to commit to a favorite. You don't like Balsamic dressing. You have Taekwondo on Thursday nights. Your best friend is dog-sitting for the rich old couple up the road.
The latter is the most important because it's what lands you on Sheehan Circle that particular afternoon.
Your friend (we'll call her Mara) tried to set up the sprinkler by herself an hour earlier but came up short. No matter. The forecast promises storms. Dads with hairy chests will run outside to roll up their windows. There will be no umbrellas. The rain will awash parched skin and earth as suddenly and heartily as a laugh.
But for now, you're running barefoot with Mara around the length of her childhood home - along the storm drain (your first premonition of unease) and through the overgrown lawn. You notice she has a key on a string. It spins soundlessly by her bony thighs.
Since waking this morning in her trundle bed, you notice Mara's been quiet. Your youthful acquaintance is strangely passive-aggressive. She audibly sighs while "helping" to make pancakes - Aunt Jemima syrup appears before you at breakfast with a silent shove. She takes a sip of her older brother's beer with a piercing glance. When she speaks, there's always a vicious undertone of derision.
And yet you follow her. Sleepover to sleepover. Season to season. You float on a mindless current of trust, unaware of your own vulnerability. Young girls with long hair, just out of earshot. Mercifully unquestioning of the future.
There's a low rumble in the distance now as you trace her steps up the street. The wind picks up, creating a deafening rustle across the treescape. Your hair is thrown back with one decisive gust that attempts to distance you from her. Still, you chase. Your feet barely grace the pavement as it threatens to burn your heels.
Mara is humming something, but it is not for you to hear. She is entirely self-contained. A sputtering Sedan passes you head-on and disappears around the cul-de-sac. You pay no mind.
On the front stoop of the Yearwood's perfectly manicured Tudor home, Mara soundlessly maneuvers the key with confidence. You stare at the forgotten Fourth of July decorations as the two dogs start to bark in anticipation.
The foreign emptiness of the home is eerie - but only for a moment. The Yearwood's dogs are polar opposites of one another. "Tucker" is large and flat-backed, with a lopsided grin. His mousy companion, "Tic Tac," is some sort of Chihuahua mix with a seemingly permanent tremor.
They swirl at Mara's feet. Her red hair nearly sweeps the floor when she hunches over to hold their faces. Your friend is pretty. The kind of pretty that will strain your friendship one day when she stops to talk to the lifeguards at the pool with glistening collarbones, leaving you stranded with goggle marks around your eyes.
But today, she's just pretty as most young girls are. Pretty without expectation. You follow her and the dogs into the kitchen where food is poured. You study her orange and pink anklet and ponder severing its threads that night, stashing it in your bag as a subtle display of defiance.
The dogs are happy you're here. It is going to rain any minute now. They run into the fenced backyard with tongues out, expecting to catch the first drop. Mara's affection is mechanical toward the animals, but you take the time to really match their wide, blank gaze.
You watch her kick a raggedy tennis ball off the porch with vigor. There's a lawnmower whirring somewhere in the neighborhood. Not unlike the sound of a passing airplane.
The sky has darkened significantly since you tore up the street after your red-headed friend. When you look up at the gray clouds, you get your second jolt of unease. Trepidation. A feeling that would often paralyze you in the middle of the night for years to come. That horrifying, epiphanic skip of your heart in the dark. It stays with you long after you ditch your childhood blanket and throw out the nightlight.
Mara follows your gaze up toward the stormy sky. Her eyes are glassy with a twinge of annoyance. She corrals the pups inside.
"I do not want to smell like wet dog," she says, wiping down the kitchen floor with her anklet-bearing heel.
She catches you staring. "Can you get the treats out from under the sink?"
You assent with a pleasant "hm-mm."
You want to say something more to her but you don't know what. You're still fighting back this overwhelming sense of time running out. Stuck in quicksand. Childhood is almost over. You know this, even in the depth of summer and its promise of escapism.
The treats are pungent chewy rectangles. The heavy smell of which lingers on your fingertips. Tucker's jowls swing as he messily downs a handful. You have to feed Tic-Tac his share in pieces. He eats like a bird.
When you head back down the main hall to leave, each of the Yearwood's family portraits stares down at you. A procession of nameless, untroubled faces frozen in time. You linger. They all begin to look the same.
From the minute Mara shuts the front door, something is wrong. It's not just because of the disorienting downpour. There's a car now idling by the curb, where the Yearwood's walkway meets the sidewalk.
The driver's side window is down and the radio is on. You try to make sense of the music but it's too faint, drowned out by the storm. It reminds you of the constant murmur of metal music coming from Mara's brother's room in the basement.
The driver's outstretched arm waves lightly. You recall it not as an entirely sinister gesture. Much like a flagger soundlessly guiding you over to move through a construction site.
At the edge of the awning, water streams down from above and spills over the steps. Your bare feet grip the concrete. Everything seems to be trembling. Mara heads down the steps without a hitch. Her hair darkens as the rain envelops her.
You'll wrack your brain for years about the imposing familiarity of the man in the car. His sunglasses were propped up on his head. His ears were rather pointed, almost elfen. You were too young to gauge his age with any particular accuracy. Though, he appeared to be prematurely balding at the temples.
With hasty clarity, you assume that Mara knows this man. An uncle, perhaps. A neighbor.
For the first time all day, Mara turns around to look at you, to see if you're moving with her. You're still stuck on the stoop. A cornered animal. As always, her gaze exercises its all-prevailing power to make you feel foolish in any circumstance. Exposed and detached, you walk slowly down to the grass. A few yards now stand between you. Your toenails are both painted blue.
Mara approaches the open window and leans over. You hang back.
"He can give us a ride," she calls back after a hushed conversation. Your eyes meet with urgency. Her lips are pressed together. Tense. She's visibly trying to steady her breath.
Her face chills you. All the blithe mannerisms you've been mesmerized by for years are gone. A baleful current has already swept you both halfway out to sea. Summer had turned cold.
With beads of rain speeding down each of your faces, you stare beseechingly at her thinly-veiled panic as the man thrums the Sedan's steering wheel to an indeterminate beat.
You notice the string holding the Yearwood's door key has been dropped decisively in a puddle accumulating by the curb. Mara's right-hand twitches slightly before taking the unmistakable shape of a finger gun. It's subtle and quick. A vital sign of life in a state of near death. Paralysis.
Sure, Mara was rather cruel and borderline self-destructive but she makes sure to give you one final, unspoken warning to be translated in mere seconds. On instinct.
So you bolt. At least, I did.
You remember the smell of the detective's aftershave. His swollen knuckles wrapped around a blue thermos. You remember your twelfth birthday at the turn of August. Celebrating with just your family under implicit house arrest.
You remember the smell of fresh paint after you got to choose a new color (mint blue) for your preteen headquarters. You remember Mara's anklet, which was eventually used to identify her body. You remember studying the photo they used of her on the news. Mara at summer camp with double fishtail braids and an endearing sunburn.
There was something so devastatingly common about Mara's abduction and subsequent death that you ultimately faded from the picture as an eyewitness. A nameless knot in a well-known cautionary tale.
Predictably, you became a true crime junkie, pouring over databases of missing and murdered girls. You took a self-defense class in college (at the gentle behest of your worried father). You did all the things that adults do to cope with the most overwhelming transition of life. That is, coming face to face with the dark underbelly of existence. The nauseating weight of the world.
Despite all your efforts, every time it rained, you had this amplified sense of drowning. The tide rushing in. It seemed to you that all young girls are forecasted to emerge from youth in violence, in betrayal, in rage.
Your own coming-of-age was slightly more self-aware and guarded than all the Mara's of the world. You fought that inherent sense of vulnerability that began on the Yearwood's front stoop with a meticulous daily routine. Meal planning and SAT prep. 6 a.m. runs. AP French. Somewhere along the way, it all added up to an Ivy League degree, a steady salary, and a comfortable home.
Guilt gives way to self-preservation. Fear breeds obsession and seclusion.
And so you find yourself at your kitchen table thirty years later eating the same scrupulously measured, stupidly adult bowl of oatmeal with ground flaxseed and fresh fruit. The same as yesterday. Made in the same small saucepan, which dries next to your favorite mug on a dish rag until the next morning (and the next).
You wake to a storm that overshadows dawn. Thunder you can feel in your throat. Steam rises assuringly from your lone dish.
In your alternate mythology, there's no man in the idling car. Mara was simply struck by lightning 30 summers ago. Wrong place, wrong time, as they say.
In the midst of today's early morning squall, you peer outside, half-expecting to find her waiting barefoot in the grass with levitating strands of auburn hair.
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