The Time Series #2
Yesterday, I got engaged. I said yes to a man who loves me, and I love him. Happiness should shine brightly from my head to my toes.
But that’s not happening.
Despite this ring on my finger, I can’t stop looking back at my life, back to the boy who cast a spell on me a long time ago.
It’s true, there is no love like your first.
I was eighteen when Noah Sutton stole my heart. He was destined for greatness, and I could barely scrape together enough money to help my mother pay our rent. We spent that summer pushing limits, breaking rules, and living in moments I thought would last forever.
None of that stopped us from breaking each other’s hearts.
I could tell you we were too different.
That we were doomed from day one.
You would probably agree with me when I say first loves are rarely last loves.
Or, I could start at the beginning, and tell you our story.
There’s just one little problem: the more I think about Noah, the more certain I become that I’m marrying the wrong man.
Oh, boy. I think this is going to get messy.
I didn’t come to the lake for this.
Running without a purpose. That’s why I came. And I would’ve kept on running too, except for the violent splashes, the thrashing arms.
“Hey.” I stand on the shore and yell, panic edging my voice. I pull off my shoes and toss them aside, walking in a few feet. Water splashes the tops of my calves. I pause, waiting to see if the person will stop when she hears me. I’m desperately hoping she’s just goofing off. The movement doesn’t stop.
I know it’s a girl because of all the hair. It floats on the surface of the water, and when she comes up again, it’s slicked halfway down her head. It’s red, like a flame.
The water is on fire.
“Hey,” I yell again. No response. Fine. I jog in a few more feet and dive under the surface. It’s not all that deep here, and there are no waves. I could stand, but it’s faster to swim.
I keep my eyes open in the fresh water. I’m not sure how long it takes me to reach her. Twenty, maybe thirty seconds? I’m a fast swimmer. My lung capacity is larger than most.
She arches above the water again, just a foot away from me. I reach out, wrap my arm around her waist, and tug her to my side. With one arm I keep her locked against my side and above the surface, with the other I tow us through the water. It’s slow going, not to mention cold, and it doesn’t help that the girl is still struggling. She’s twisting and pushing against my forearm, which is wrapped around her. She’s probably scared. Maybe she still thinks she’s fighting for her life. My one-armed strokes are enough to get us to a place where I can stand. The muddy bottom wedges between my toes. Trudging toward the shore, I glance down at the girl I’m towing along.
Her body has gone slack, and she’s looking at me. Her lips are taut and her eyebrows are pulled together. She’s pissed?
“What?” I say sharply, but I’m panting, so it doesn’t come out as strongly as I’d hoped. I can play ninety minutes of soccer with hardly a break, but this rescuing someone from a lake thing is harder than it looks.
She doesn’t respond. When the water is only to my knees, I let her go. It laps to the middle of her thighs, but I figure she’s okay in that depth.
Her arms cross her chest, and she stares at me. Her mouth is still a straight line and her eyes are bright. Full of something. I don’t know what.
The longer she stares, the more my stomach starts to feel weird. She’s not just staring… she’s evaluating. And for the first time in my life, I’m afraid I’m not measuring up.
“I wasn’t drowning,” she says, as though it’s no big deal. She starts for the shore.
“Looked like it to me.” I follow. My voice isn’t as calm as hers. The wind picks up, and my wet T-shirt clings to my skin. She’s wearing a dress, bluer than the water that surrounds us, and it clings to her. “What were you doing out there if you weren’t drowning?” If anybody’s keeping score, let it be known I don’t believe the girl. “Wait.” A horrible thought slams into me. “Were you…drowning on purpose?” I can’t bring myself to ask her if she was trying to commit suicide.
“No,” she says quickly, looking back at me. “I’m not suicidal.” Softly, she says “I was dancing.”
She resumes trudging through the water, and again I follow. In no time my long strides easily overtake hers.
“Dancing?” I ask.
“Ever heard of it?”
She laughs, and I’m struck by the feeling that I know her from somewhere. She’s around my age, I think. It’s possible she goes to my high school.
Once on shore, she heads for a cluster of rocks and sits down on the flattest one. Her head dips back, face lifted to the sun, and she stretches out.
“No soccer practice today?” she asks, eyes still closed.
So, she does go to my high school. Or maybe a neighboring one, but that’s a stretch. I’m not that well-known.
“Practice finished up a while ago.” My mind races to figure out who she is. I walk closer, looking harder at her under the safety of her closed gaze, as though proximity will increase recognition.
She’s beautiful in an unconventional way. If the red hair weren’t enough of a differentiator, she wears a tiny diamond in her right nostril. How many girls in my class wear a nose ring? I catch sight of her left ear and count. Seven earrings. Why only seven? Why not eight? And why aren’t there any earrings in her right ear? Does one nose ring equal seven earrings, so that now the left and right are balanced?
Despite the excessive earrings, she looks better than any half-drowned possibly suicidal person has a right to. The blue fabric drapes against her creamy skin, and the shocking red hair fans out around her. Her chest rises and falls with her breath, and my eyes are drawn to her collarbone. I’ve never noticed that part of a girl before. On her, it’s captivating.
“Don’t you have a girlfriend?” She’s got one eye cocked open, and her hand comes up to shield it from the sun.
“Sort of,” I say. My unease has more to do with the fact that she knows me, yet I have no idea who she is, and way less to do with the fact that my break-up with Kelsey is still secret, and I’ve just lied to this girl.
Before she can ask me to explain my sort of relationship status, I ask “How do you dance in water?” If that’s what she was really doing.
“The same way you dance on land.” She gives me a perplexed look, as though I’m the one who needs help.
“Sure,” I say, nodding. I turn, heading to the shoes I threw off before running into the water.
“You don’t believe me?” The wind takes her voice and throws it, but I catch what she’s asked. With goosebumps covering my arms, I spin around.
Rising gracefully from the boulder, she comes toward me. Her gait is lithe, the wet dress clings to the insides of her thighs. The sun has dried some of her hair, and it falls around her face in waves.
“Put your hands above your head,” she instructs.
“You can’t be serious.”
I sigh and look at the lake. It’s so calm now.
Raising my hands, I look back at her. The girl whose name I still don’t know.
She nods her approval and lifts her own arms. “Now,” she says, “close your eyes and think of your favorite song.” As I watch she closes her eyes, and in seconds her hips are swaying. A smile plays on her lips, and she turns in place, until she’s facing me again. She looks free. And happy.
Her eyes narrow after she opens them and looks at me. “You didn’t do it.”
“I…uh…I meant to.” I can’t confess I was too busy watching her. “I don’t know how to dance by myself.”
She stares at me again, and again the feeling of being evaluated comes over me. She holds out a hand. “Dance with me?”
I take her open palm and curl my fingers around hers. She steps into me, bringing with her a rush of nerves. Her other hand comes to rest on the back of my neck, and it’s her, not me, who makes us move.
It’s slow, so slow, and there’s nothing to move to. No beat, no timing, no constraints. Nothing to tell us when to start. Nothing to tell us when to stop. She lays her head against my chest, and when I look down at the shock of red, I feel nothing short of wonder. It’s a color I’ve never been this close to.
We sway together until she says against my chest, “I know you don’t know who I am.”
I opt for silence. Nothing I say will make it better.
With her head still in place on my chest, she says “I’m not mad. I wouldn’t expect you to know me.”
Suddenly I wish I did. She’s everything I want to be, and everything I don’t have the guts to admit I am. She is all the things.
At some point, she decides our dance is finished. When she steps away from me, I fight the urge to pull her back in. Then, when she picks up her sandals and walks away, I want to ask her to come back.
She pauses just before stepping onto the trail and looks back at me. Tree branches hang down around her, some low enough to brush her shoulders, and she looks like she stepped from a fairy tale. “My name is Ember.” Then she turns around, and in a few seconds I can’t see her anymore.
I want to chase her, take her hand in mine, and tell her I’ll never hear music the same way again.