The child’s footsteps surround her. The tunnel’s darkness seems absolute, sandwiched between the semicircles of light at either end. Panting, she runs toward the other side, her hair patting her shoulders, urging her on. She is eleven years old with spindly legs that are accentuated by the white socks she pulled half way up her shins. She watches the light bounce as she runs, until she bursts forth in front of the lake. There, beneath the blue sky again, she lets herself lean over a fence post and peer down into the water and watch herself catching her breath. Sufficiently recovered, she takes the lake at a measured stroll.
The grown-ups don’t pay her any mind. She tries to look each one in the eye. The old ladies are too focused on getting their exercise, the couples watching each other. Sometimes someone, it could be anyone, looks at her and gives a little smile, and she smiles back, or says good day, or simply nods. She wants to be noticed, to be remembered, to be seen as a regular here. She reaches into the pocket of her dress and fiddles with something. Her smile is bigger, her steps quicken. She walks into a gazebo and leans over her reflection again.
“Nice day for a walk,” a man’s voice says.
“Yes it is,” Sally says, her eyes still on the water.
“I’ve seen you here before.”
Sally looks up to give a polite smile because she doesn’t know what to say. The man is standing a few feet away. She can’t see his face because he looks down into the water. He has black hair that looks wet and wears a long black raincoat. Sally looks down at her bare legs and arms, then squints up at the sky. It is so blue and bright it is almost white. She shrugs and looks back in the water.
“How many fish do you think are in there?” the man asks.
“Have you ever counted?”
“Well, no. But it’s a big lake.”
“Have you ever swam in it?”
Sally looks at him. “You can’t swim in there!”
“You’re not allowed.”
“I said…” Before she finishes he turns toward her. He is younger than she thought, just a few years older, still a boy himself. He flashes her a smile, then hurtles over the wooden rail. His coat billows up behind him, catching the air like the wings of a black butterfly, then like smoke, and then he sinks into the water. Circles ripple out. She waits, but feels no fear. His confidence keeps him safe in her mind. But after awhile the ripples are gone and he still hasn’t appeared. She leans over, as far as she can, squinting into the water.
Nothing but a slight wave lapping the roots, like the tide in the ocean.
She jumps back and spins around. There he is with that same grin, completely dry.
“How did you do that?”
He smiles, his eyes alive. “How do you think?”
If he had said, it’s magic, or, you wouldn’t understand or even not answered, she would have been mystified and in awe. By asking her to tell him what he did, she immediately begins to deduce.
“Well, you either dried really fast. Or you didn’t get wet in the first place. You could be the first guy’s twin. You’re not his twin are you?”
He laughs. It has a pleasant sound and makes her feel comfortable. “No, I’m not my twin.” His calm makes him seem older, a young grown up.
“Okay. Don’t tell me! I’m going to figure it out.”
“I’m sure you will. Hey, kid.”
She has already bit her lip and looks into the water, trying to throw out some more theories. She looks up when he called her.
“I don’t know your name.”
She tilts her head. “I’m not supposed to tell strangers my name.”
“Really?” He steps toward her, the smile on his face, confusing her. “Are you supposed to even talk to them.”
“Well…I’ve been thinking about that. It’s okay to say hello and to answer people when they ask a direct question, like what time is it? I don’t want to be rude.”
“So we are having a polite conversation. Well, good. You shouldn’t be telling strangers your name. But I can tell you mine?”
She shrugs, attempting to look bored. “I guess. If you want.”
“Call me Alec. I’ll see you later kid.” Without another word he spins on his heal and walks away. His boots, which she just noticed, clip clop on the asphalt as he leaves her, continuing on down the path and out of sight. She had no doubt that if she ran around the bend to follow him he would be gone.