“Do you ever have a dream, a dream so wild and wonderful that you can hang onto the pieces and put them together like a puzzle, completing a full story?” the young me doesn’t look up from what they are doing. They found a piece of chalk and were scratching into the pavement, the blue lines nothing at first, but the longer they drew, the more something it actually was. There was an outline of a body, small and boy-like, playing with a figurine of sorts. “Sometimes when I wake up, the dream stays with me, almost pleading me to write it down. And sometimes I do, only to get lost and never finish it or else believe the idea is so bad.”
I shrug. “Perhaps bad is the wrong word. You are still young, still developing. What if I told you one day people would ask you to spin them a story, and you would be able to wove one out of thin air, the threads tying themselves together in a matter of minutes, seconds even. Despite the rush, the unpreparedness, they are not bad stories, and you can entertain, even at the smallest level. A struggling artist may not always struggle forever, so long as you don’t stop juggling, don’t stop entertaining, and don’t stop doing what you love.”
They laugh. “I’m glad you sound so confident.”
“Confidence is not so easily had. Sometimes you have to work for it, tender it like you tender a plant.”
“You do realize I kill every plant I’m given due to neglect and abandonment stemming from forgetfulness, right?”
I chuckle. ” Same. That’s why I should never be allowed to take care of anything. Too much responsibility. I’ll get lost for hours trying to craft a half decent story, only to remember I didn’t water Derek the dinosaur plant, or I haven’t eaten yet, or I forgot to take the trash out on trash day, leaving me to sprint outside, yelling ‘Shit, shit, shit, shit!'”
“All that for only a half decent story? I thought you were confident?”
“I am false confident! Believe me, it is hard to trust in your work and believe anyone could ever like it. But one, it can’t hurt to try, right? And like I said, all that matters if you like it, so don’t stop if you love it. Tell me, what did you dream?”
My younger self takes a deep breath, clutching the chalk tightly. Almost too tightly. A crack begins to split through the middle. ” Let’s see if I can tell it right. Maybe I can draw it right to.”
“You do realize we are terrible drawers, right?”
They grin devilishly, ” Yeah, so that means we should be able to interpret and understand what we are showing.”
They draw. Circles and swirls begin to form a picture, a scene, of a house by the lake. Then they start using their words.
A Swim in the Dark
They packed up, as the usually did, and crammed inside the tiny blue Volkswagen at precisely four in the afternoon. Mr. Breves was always particular with the time, making it his mission to leave when he was supposed to leave and arrive when he was supposed to arrive. Alexis thought he was a drill sergeant in this manner, but in everything else he was easy going, relaxed, always smiling whether the sun was shining, or a blizzard was whipping viciously at his face. So, it should have been easy to tell him; it was Mrs. Breves who should have been the challenge. Mrs. Breves was the opposite of her husband in all but one aspect: she, too, was meticulous about the time, and could not bear be being early or late, but arriving or departing exactly when she was supposed to.
“It is 3:59. If you are not in this car in thirty seconds, we are leaving without you!” Mrs. Breves had hollered domineering, keeping track on the Rolex watch she wore at all times. Alexis knew to be prompt, but for little Levi it was a different matter. He came stumbling down the porch steps, hopping on one foot as he wrestled to get the remaining show on his foot. A backpack was slung across his shoulder, yet the broken strap had it slipping from his back, and he wrestled with that too. Always wrestling with something, Mrs. Breves always complained. Eventually, Levi made it, squishing himself in the back seat with Alexis, who wasn’t eager to share the space but was eager to tell someone, anyone. She didn’t expect Levi to handle it well the most.
Every year they went to the same place at exactly the same time. Once school let out, they quickly packed all they needed for a five-day stint at the great Greta’s Breves lake house up north, beyond the rich, mountainous city of Hampton where the chalet’s came with their own lifts and the food came with an expensive bill meant to rob. The house itself wasn’t an exception; built large and with the finest carved oak known to mankind, it boasted extravagance and shined with grandiose. Attached were a parlor, a pool, and a bowling alley because great Greta couldn’t bag the habit. Levi loved the space, the highly lacquered banister and dozen or so cushy bedrooms to make use of. But for Alexis, it was unnerving. She felt she was being watched, under a judging eye that warned her to be good. “Be the lady you are supposed to be,” the walls whispered, and she shrank from it, feeling the grime swell and spoil her skin.
Despite their punctuality, the drive was slow going as always, if only because Mr. Breves had to stop every hour on the hour for a bathroom break. “I swear, you are a toddler,” complained Mrs. Breves, “I might as well put you in diapers.”
“And I might as well put you in a chain-smoker gang,” Mr. Breves spat back, and he wasn’t wrong. His wife loved to sneak a smoke when she thought no one was looking, and only did it when she was stressed, which was frequently.
Hearing her parents bicker while being squished next to a brother who didn’t know how to sit still was not at all endearing to Alexis. Despite stuffing her ears with headphones, the music could not drown out the dread sinking into her stomach like a rock sinking into a lake. She counted down the hours, the minutes, the seconds, until they were there, and she could breathe. Well, breathe as much as her lungs would allow her and how much air there was available. Because lately, no matter where she was, she just couldn’t breathe as much as she used to. She knew she had to tell them, otherwise she would suffocate.
They arrived at dusk, precisely when they were supposed to, the warm sun cooling into ice and the stars starting to hover above the thicket of trees encircling the house, making it more clandestine, more isolated, than it actually was. There were neighbors not far away, and Alexis could hear the motorboats coming in for the evening, the whooping and hollering of young children still eager to play. It was that time of year when the families all gathered together to take a break from reality, or at least the reality they conjured.
For Alexis, this wasn’t her reality. Her reality involved sitting around a campfire in the middle of nowhere, wearing loose fitting plaid shirts and baseball caps, playing, and failing miserably the guitar while singing a song with a voice deep and raspy, almost male like. Male-like. Whatever that meant.
“I still don’t understand why you haven’t made any female friends,” her mother had this uncanny ability to read her thoughts. “Like what’s wrong with Becca Dawson? It would be so lovely to have the Dawson’s over for dinner sometime. And Luke Dawson… well, he’s just so much more handsome than those ragamuffins you like to spend your time with.”
“They’re not ragamuffins,” Alexis took her bag out of the car, not offering to help her mother, who would only scold her for slouching and carrying it the wrong way. Too male-like. Whatever that meant.
Once inside, Alexis found her room and delicately put down her bag on the neat and tidy bed. As usual, it was off putting: the walls painted a pale pink, the edges adorned with a floral pattern and polished wainscoting, the floorboard beneath her feet too pristine for her muddy shoes which she was quick to kick off. If she shifted the tall, Buckingham wooded drawers so the backside was facing her, she would see the carving of an unfinished arrow she had made with a kitchen knife when she was six years old. Mrs. Breves had been dismayed at the discovery, yet instead of exposing the truth to an ailing great Greta, she took a piece of charcoal tarnish and tried to cover it up. But the lines, faded as they were, were still there, the only piece of imperfection in an otherwise too perfect- unnaturally so- place.
“Will you come down to the lake with me?” Levi poked his fluffy head inside the door, whining.
“Why do I have to go? Can’t mom or dad take you?” After being cooped up in the car for hours, trying to find the right words for a feeling she was barely beginning to understand, Alexis just wanted time to herself, time she needed to think about what one of her so-called ragamuffins had said.
“I’m flattered, Alex, I really am. But the thing is, I’ve always seen you as one of us. One of the guys. You’re just so male-like, I forget you’re supposed to be a girl.”
Male-like. She has been getting that a lot lately, but she didn’t expect it to come from Charles Dorfin, the only person she can recall developing any sort of those feelings Mrs. Breves wanted her to have towards the opposite gender, those feelings you were supposed to get inside of you stomach, the ones that made it hard to breathe, hard to think, and it tugged on you, pulling you towards the thing that was bringing everything out in a giant, messy ball that would never be undone. Charles Dorfin was her closest friend, and perhaps that was where the illusion came from. He made her laugh, he was good for conversation, and her wasn’t bad to look at, with a little scruffy beard forming around a perfectly square jawline. But apparently, he didn’t see her the same way, and it was a little disappointing, despite the grain of truth hidden inside his rejection.
You’re just so male like.
“Fine. I’ll come,” she told Levi. “Just let me get dressed really quick.”
She shoved the door shut, locking it with the little golden chain that slid across the smooth wood surface. Too smooth, too clean, too perfect. What was wrong with a little ragged edge, a spotted surface, a design creative but imperfect? Alexis took a fingernail and scratched at the door. A little piece broke off and floated to the floor.
She turned to her bag and searched for a bathing suit. It was a red and blue polka dot bikini, the strapless with the exception of one long, thick band holding it together. This was the one she was supposed to wear, the one Mrs. Breves had bought with Mr. Breves money, and Mr. Breves had nodded, saying how appropriate it was for a girl like her to wear something like that when Alexis had protested. Tuck beneath it, however, were the long, blue, and silver swim trunks that hung down to her knees, with a plain black sports bra to protect her chest. Those were the ones she preferred, the ones she wore often when she went with her ragamuffins down to the small pond behind Mr. Treschmeyer’s old bakery now converted into a loft and bookstore.
It’s funny, how they never anything when she wore them. No jokes, no catcalling, no looks of confusion. They didn’t care. So, why was she suddenly concerned about what she wore? Who cares what Mrs. Breves thought. She would find out anyway, if Alexis could ever bring herself to tell her what she was beginning to suspect but was quickly knowing with absolute certainty.
“I am not a girl,” Alexis whispered as she slid into the trunks, removed her shirt and plain looking bra, and replaced it with the black sports one. She examined her chest, her curves, even the birth mark across her hip. A deep dissatisfaction slept in her belly, and when it woke it would bloom into full self-hatred. Levi was lucky, she thought as she finished her self-examination and followed him outside, down the stone path that led to the docks. He was bouncing up and down, like a jack rabbit, pounding on his bare chest as he hooted with childish excitement. He wasn’t ashamed of himself, of his body, of who he was. He was lucky.
“Careful! You don’t want to slip and crack you skull open!” she shouted.
“Oh, what are you, mother?” he laughed, taunting her to follow him to the edge of the dock where the blue water lapped softly against the wood.
Alexis cringed. She was nothing like Mrs. Breves and hoped never to be. She preferred to take after her father, who was less stringent, more tolerant. He liked her friends, saying he was glad she was with people who made her happy. Alexis could not help but wonder if he was truly happy with who he was with.
“If I were mother, would I do this!” She sprinted towards him, her face splitting into a mischievous grin, and she tackled him off, their bodies intertwined as they hit the water. The coldness was sharp, and she quickly separated herself in order to adjust to the shock.
“Hey! No fair!” Levi gobbled a mouthful of water and spat it at her. When she flinched, he laughed. “What are you, cold?”
“I’m not… cold!” But her teeth betrayed her, and they clattered together, playing like a broken piano key.
“Yeah? Well, then I’ll race you to the other side!”
“You’re on!” She was about to warn him to look out for boats, but that would only earn her another snide comparison to a woman she vehemently vowed never to be alike. She wouldn’t anyway because she wasn’t… she wasn’t…
She dove back beneath the water, swimming after her brother’s short, yet strong legs. She managed to reach his ankle, and she yanked him back, hard. Bubbles float to the surface as he shouted in protest.
“No fair!” Levi splashed her once they broke the surface. They weren’t even halfway across the lake.
“When are you going to learn that life isn’t fair, little brother?” she laughed, splashing him back. The laughter froze, though, when she spotted Becca Dawson, rowing in her kayak alongside her brother Luke.
Levi caught her wondering eyes and followed it to the Dawsons. “Hi!” he waved his freckled hand enthusiastically. He was such a fan of Luke, the tall, athletic boy with long, curly hair and just an overall aesthetic air that drew people to him. People either wanted to be him, be with him, or be friends with him. His demeanor wasn’t altogether unpleasant, but it wasn’t something to be desired if those took the time to peel back his cool layer.
They turned and smiled one of their plastic smiles, and when they saw Alexis their smiles flickered, and the light dimmed in their eyes. They continued on their way, like they spotted a few ducks floating in the water- looking for only a second, then going back to their business.
“Weird. Luke always says hi to me. What did you do?”
“Me? Why do you assume it was me?”
“You go to school with them, don’t you? And Luke never lets me play video games with him anymore. So, what did you do?”
“Nothing!” That wasn’t absolutely true. There was a night, a long time ago, when Alexis decided Mrs. Breves was right, that she needed some girlfriends, some friends of the normal sort-whatever that meant-so she went over to the Dawson’s own lake house. It was larger than theirs, built on more ground and designed to hold large parties with their multiple floors and ostentatious rooms that could fit a pool, and two long, winding staircases used to slide down on sleeping bags. She went over after spending the day with Becca Dawson, who insisted her brother wanted to talk to her. Naturally, she was like everyone else, or pretended to be, and allowed herself to be captured by his charming allure.
They were sitting on the back wooden porch, in the hot tub beneath the wide window cut into an A-shape to match the overhanging frame. Alexis just started to wear her trunks, which she felt more comfortable in, and was trying out a sports bra to keep her burgeoning chest from being too exposed. “So, Alexis, why do you wear all that?” Becca began.
“Because I like it,” she had said.
“But it hides who you are,” Luke injected. He slowly moved closer to her; his head cocked to the side. They had just played three rounds of foosball, and Alexis had beaten him each time, which she thought may have wounded his pride, but he just beamed joyously, if not a little flirtatiously, admiring how a girl could keep up with a guy like him.
“What do you mean? This is who I am.”
Becca laughed in that hollow way of hers, then tossed her dirty blond hair back to avoid the chemicals in the tub. “Surely you can’t be saying you are more like a guy than a girl.”
“What if that’s exactly what I’m saying?” the words surprised her, but they rang true. “Would it be a problem if I wanted to be more like a guy, whatever that meant.”
“Uh, yeah, because that’s weird and unnatural, “You were born in the body you were given for a reason. And to think otherwise… well, it’s just weird.”
“Yeah,” Luke said,” And then I wouldn’t be able to do this.”
He reached over and kissed her, pressing his mouth to hers, and pulling her bottom lip. He expected her to reciprocate, to enjoy because everyone else did but not everyone could keep up with a guy like him. However, his lips, cracked and chapped, were rough, and the movement surprised and disgusted her. She pushed her away, then slapped him across the cheek.
She jumped out of the tub, and never came back.
“Be the good lady you are supposed to be.” The lake shouted as she ran away. She knew from that point on she would never be what she was supposed to be, and all eyes around her would be judging her and the grime she was covered in.
At least the ragamuffins didn’t seem to mind it, but they, too, gave her an odd look sometimes, like they were trying to figure out for themselves who they were supposed to be.
Alexis turned back to Levi. They were still swimming in place, watching the ripples trail after the Dawson’s. “Do you really want to know what happened?” she sighed. She might as well tell him, bit by bit, until maybe he understood. But there was a chance he wouldn’t, and that terrified her, her heart leaping into her throat and choking her. Yet if she didn’t, she would still choke, her lungs filling up with smoke until they burst.
“Yeah I do!” Always so curious, always so eager.
“He kissed me, and I didn’t like it, so I slapped him. Becca didn’t like that either.”
“You know how siblings can be. They have to protect each other.”
“Well, then, I guess I’ll be protecting you then! You kiss whoever you want to kiss, because I know if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t want it, and its wrong if only one person wants it, and the other doesn’t! That’s what Mrs. K tells our class, and Mrs. K is right!”
Alexis smiled. “You sure you’d still protect me even if I told you why they don’t like me?”
“Wait, why else would they not like you?”
“Because” and here Alexis took a deep breathe, letting the evening air cleanse her heart, her skin, her muscles; letting the soft chill tickle her playfully before it was all gone. “Because I said, more or less, that I’m not a girl.”
All she could hear were the gentle splashes of Levi paddling like a dog, circling in place while his eyes roamed the burning sky gradually dimming to darkness. “So, are you, like, a boy then?”
“I… I might be…”
There was a moment’s silence. Then he said: “If you say you’re a boy, then you’re a boy. I thought it would be cool to have a brother, anyway. And nothing’s really changed, has it? You’re still going to annoy me, right?”
Alexis smiled. “Duh. It’s my favorite thing to do.”
Despite the oncoming darkness, she could back out his grin. “Likewise. And hey, don’t worry about mom or dad. Or at least dad. Because I will be right by your side when you decide to tell them, and even if I’m in the middle of one of Mrs. K’s awesome lessons, I will come home sprinting just so you’ll have me there.”
He swam over and hugged the brother he never knew he had but would always love. Alexis held him tight for as long as she could, which wasn’t incredibly long because they both started sinking like rocks. “Okay, okay! You’re going to drown me!”
“Sorry!” Alexis wiped the tears forming in her eyes and let them hit the water. Of all the people she was going to tell, she never thought of telling Levi. But she was glad she did. A fiery warmth spread throughout her limbs, and suddenly she was eager to swim more, all the way across the lake.
“You know, great Greta told me a story once,” Levi swallowed a gulp of water, then spat it up in the air, the droplets dispersing and glittering through the air. “She told me how this lake was special. Beneath the surface, if you swam far enough, there was a secret world, a wonderous world filled with purple and green gems, and castles made out of weed, and all sorts of creatures- from mermaids to sea lions to shadow horses. It was a world where if you entered it, it would strip away everything, revealing the heart and who you really are this whole time, whatever they looked like. It was a place meant for lost people, and maybe, if you’re feeling lost, you could find it. But if you find it, usually you don’t come back, or don’t come back the same as before.”
“You don’t really believe that do you? It’s just a fantastical story, nothing more.”
Levi shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. I like to think there’s a little magic in life that sets people free.”
The sky had lost its light. Stars poked out, and a bright, full moon through its lanturn out to guide those back to where they were supposed to go. “We should probably get going. I think I can hear mom calling our name.”
“Either that, or she’s arguing with dad again about not having plants in the house. They will just wither and die, but he insists they will bring things to life around here,” Levi started for the dock, but pauses, looking alongside at Alexis, who was keeping his pace. “You can go, you know. It’s okay. I think you should find it, find that place that lives in the lake.”
Alexis chuckled. “Silly boy, you want me to go freeze and drown and get myself killed?”
“No. I want you to be free and happy. I want you to have that magic. And I’ll know you’ll come back. When you do, what do you want me to call you?”
The name came instantly, and perhaps it was from the magic in the water. “Caleb.”
Levi nodded. “See you later, Caleb!”
Off he went, and despite the chill climbing up Caleb’s spine, he dove underneath the water, swimming through the darkness.
He swam and he swam, deeper and deeper, his breath calm and his body still, his hands searching for the bottom.
A green glow shined through the mud. He swam and he swam, the darkness all around him except for that green glow.
There it was a green gem. He picked it up and saw reflected in the sides his face. His new face. The face he was always supposed to have.