Lucinda positioned the flower and snapped several photos. She eyed other bright Gerber daisies in crackled vases, fighting an impulse to grab a half-dozen. She was thinking of lining them up on the coffee shop’s open air ledge and shooting them in different clusters, then taking them home. She liked flowers in the same way she liked cats–glad to see them, happy to house them, nice to admire them and even feed them, but then they’d leave her alone. Why didn’t that work with people? The daisies cheered her more than her older brother, Linc, did so far today.
“What are you doing with that?” he asked, nostrils flaring, a quirk of the family aquiline nose. His iced mocha beaded up in the heat; he wiped it dry with a napkin.
“Uh, taking pictures of it?”
“Must you always have that camera at the ready? It’s not as if you’re a photojournalist for a thriving daily paper or opening a show at a gallery. I mean, it’s a hobby, just a hobby.”
He said things without hesitation, as if his pronoucements had a heft that others’ did not. She’d stopped taking seriously every sentence he spouted long ago. She knew he seldom meant any harm. His thoughts liked the limelight is all.
Still, Lucinda withdrew her hand from the second vase she’d been ready to snatch from an empty table. She would get the shot sometime. Linc bent over The New York Times, slurped the coffee. She sat on a folded leg, propped her chin in hand. How to survive endless sun and her brother for the remainder of summer, maybe much longer. When their grandfather left them a charming house on a hill he’d been excited. Linc could do consulting from any place. She was between college commitments–she’d dropped out last March and wasn’t ready to return–and their mother wasn’t interested in further subsidizing her needs, good cameras and photography, mostly, and cycling, some hiking, reading. This town could be it for a while, so long as they lived together without serious regrets.
He leaned forward; his dry fingers grazed her hand. “Oh, Luce, I just wish you’d try acting less downcast. Look at that sky and be happy. We both need happy. We’ll be here awhile, or at least I will.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, then at the sky. You couldn’t miss the sunshine blaring good will all over blueness and baked buildings. Heat held dominion here, it skewered vegetation, chastened the fragile skin of her lips, ransacked shadows. It forced people into the mighty river or indoors. If there wasn’t water it would have morphed into desert and mountains entirely and the town would never have been built. Which sounded more pleasant to her. But there was not any place she longed to be. This was good enough for now.
Her brother was searching her face with enhanced hazel eyes (courtesy of contact lenses), looking for the chink in her natural reserve. She’d agreed to get off the couch and come to the coffee shop just to see people milling about. It hadn’t occurred to her that East Canyon, despite being a tourist town, would be so devoid of the lovely crush of humans during the weekdays. Where was everybody? People more her age? Didn’t it used to be different here once, before they grew up?
“Define ‘awhile’,” she said. “Like for the fall and winter or are we looking at a twelve month deal?”
“So far it suits me. I’m considering making this my home base. It can be yours, too, until you’re ready to move on…like we already told mom. Right?” He looked at her as if the situation was a contract signed and sealed. “Or you didn’t understand that part of it?”
She thought, didn’t he understand her part? The one about her life being ruined last spring, how much she wanted to live like a slug, hidden and undisturbed? The part about not wanting to be his maid service while he made oodles of money? She had been informed she had to get a job at a grocery store or somewhere. No free rides. When had she and her brother last tried to live together? Seven years ago, when she was just thirteen. Her part was complicated. He just had work, adult obligations, his little dramas.
Of course, Lucinda allowed that Jeffrey had recently left him, so there was that; Linc obviously had his own miseries. She accepted him without fail but didn’t profess to deeply understand. He spoke little of the “whos” or “whys” of his life. They lived such opposite directions on any scale. He was chatty; she was introverted. He loved flashy objects money bought him; she appreciated second-hand things. Linc was always all-in while she waited, watched, pondered. Still, they had too much history not to mention shared blood; there wouldn’t be serious battles.
“I’m not thrilled to live where things die if left unattended for more than ten minutes without liquid hydration.” She sucked on an ice cube from her water for demonstration.
“Do you always think of life as a series of dire conditions? Like it is something that needs immediate saving? Lighten up.” Then he pressed fingertips to his lips. “I’m sorry, Luce, I don’t think. I see that things still seem that way at times. I’m here for you–you know that.”
She looked away. She resisted reference to difficult topics, found it gauche in public. The newspaper rustled and he fell silent, too. Then as if on cue, she felt her heart race and a shiver run up her sweaty back. The heat suffocated her. She wanted to get up and leap over tables and run like hell.
Eyes were on her, she could feel them. It was what happened: she knew what was going on around her without thinking.
She peered into, then swung her camera to the courtyard. First she saw the Australian bush hat, is that what that was? A fancy hat. Then the shoulders. How much could you tell about a man by his shoulders? These were broad and still. As if he could sit there for hours and not move but go into action as a moment’s notice. He was deeply tanned, older than Linc, wore jeans and a white shirt, sleeves rolled up. He raised his head a bit and she held the camera steady and snapped once. The second time he held up his hand, either a salute or a warning–she would study it later. She took one more to let him know she had recorded all details and she knew he had seen her.
She turned back to the interior, bit her lip. Linc folded the paper and picked up his wallet, stood and stuffed it in a back pocket.
“Ready?” Linc asked her. He looked fresh and calm, a smile easy on his face.
Lucinda got up and they left.
The next day when they roamed the streets, it was cloudy, not so much cooler as variable. This was cause for celebration and Lucinda brought her better camera, started taking photos as soon as they walked. The differing light was much more interesting, gave more depth to things, allowed colors to vibrate which full-on sunshine did not. What looked flat and unappealing to her yesterday was fascinating today. She hummed as she shot.
“Nothing can be that interesting here. Wait until we get to the river. I’ve work to do on my PC so you’ll be on your own.”
Linc stayed close as they walked. He knew that something had again awakened her in the night, had heard her footsteps on the ancient wood floors, felt her anxiety permeate darkness and float down the hall to his room. He’d sat up, listening but she closed her bedroom door and that was that. It was a change for them both, yes, but a good one. They had spent many glorious summers here before the family had moved too far away. If only she would remember. He desperately wanted her to remember life when she felt secure and right with the world.
“Good,” she said, then snapped a picture of him before he settled his visor on his blond head. He looked abashed in photos if he was unprepared. When readied, he might be called dashing as well as a confident businessman. He put his arm around her shoulders. She didn’t shrug it off for a block.
They were passing the coffee shop. Lucinda saw the hat man again and kept on walking. The same daisies were vivid against a grayed interior. She wanted to put them in one big clear vase and shoot them against the shadows and a few lounging people, a soft blur behind them. Life in East Canyon, a long summer breeze, the caption would say.
The man stood. Lucinda sped up. Was he tracking her daily movements? Did he know where they lived?
“Wait up!” Linc hurried after her.
“To the river!” she commanded. She didn’t want to look over her shoulder but she did. She couldn’t tell if the man was watching her or not. Then he waved, and his gold watch flashed like a signal. Lucinda held her breath but another man ran across the street to join him. She felt her chest and throat loosen. Stinging air pressed into her lungs.
The legendary river was deep, steel-blue and broad. It always had scared her but in a way that moved her, filled her with wonder. This was one river that could carry people all the way to the ocean. She wasn’t the sort of swimmer that ever made a team, but she was still drawn to water. Linc settled on a picnic table under the shade of a large tree, water bottle in hand. He put his sunglasses back on after following her path a moment.
She’d worn a swim suit under her jean shorts and t-shirt but she didn’t plan to take the clothes off. Linc had encouraged her, even wore his old swim trunks with a polo shirt just in case. It made her laugh. He preferred sleek boats in water, his body dry. He was at his best languishing with a drink in his hand as he glided along.
The waterfront was filling up with people. Windsurfers and kiteboarders zig-zagged the Columbia’s choppy waters. Kayakers and paddle boarders maneuvered away from land. Her camera was busy as she edged forward, focusing, framing, zooming in and out, finding scenes that spoke to her. In time her heart quieted, her hands steadied, the views cooperated with her eye and everything slowed. The clamorous sounds of life diminished as her brain engaged and instincts were given full rein. She was at ease. Peace stirred and filled her like a dream that carried her body and soul. If only she could feel this way every minute of every day. Her eyes focused on the distant mountain peaks, their gradations of browns and greens, the intricate textures.
And then she stepped off a ridge of land she had been following that meandered beside the river.
It was a fast descent but before she hit water she threw the camera back to land. She felt the magnet of gravity as she entered the massive volume of liquid, held her breath as feet and legs and trunk and head submerged. It wasn’t as dark there as she expected, but bright blue-green to silvered teal, then darker blue. Eyelids stunned, they fluttered, defenseless against thickening murk. Her lungs wanted to expand but she could not let that happen so she pushed out and down with her hands, kicked her feet as hard as she could against the current. The river’s will was so strong. She imagined this was like Eden where everything started, and she opened her mouth a little to it. Thought of mermaids and fishes and snakes and bugs, how they adored this place that held their life and death. This river was legendary, victorious in beauty and strength. But Lucinda had failed to overcome and her own beauty–had she not obscured it well? did the night enrage him? had he been taught to hate?–had been erased.
Why here and now? Why this river? After she had found things to love a little again. Photographs, of all things. And her grandfather had adored his grandchildren. Surely he wouldn’t lead her to such a finale, not after an already monstrous end to her happiness. That assault on all her hope, the taking of her power, the leaching of her small but only life: she had been perfect prey to a predator who got away as she was cycling to school one jewel-toned spring evening. One suspended span of time. Things shattered. Most pieces still seemed lost.
She thought these things but without words, without the meddling mind of the living but with the soul of the nearly dying. She knew what she knew and grasped for more. The river flowed and brought her with a starry sense of everything. She was drifting toward sleep. Things were different under the surface, in this netherworld of other kingdoms. Nothing…hurt.
Breathe, Lucinda heard from the depths, a flickering echo in her head. Breathe even when you think you have no breath left. You can live through anything. She breathed a tiny breath, enough that it tasted of mud, plant life, a strange pureness. She saw emerald, indigo and gold, a deep bowl of golden light held by hands of lightning in the waters of life. Lucinda breathed a whole breath, and it was well and good.
There was yanking and screaming as she was grabbed, pulled, pushed until her weight was gathered up and placed upon the earth. Her chest pummelled, air propelled into her. She tried to slip back.
“Luce! Luuuce! Open your eyes, breathe, breathe, breathe damnit!” he screamed.
Linc called; Lucinda returned.
She felt the river cruising in her veins. It slid up her throat as she hacked and coughed. She felt it clothing her, then falling away from her. Leaving her gently, her flesh so cold beyond the warmth, so soft yet like stone.
Lucinda opened her eyes and through the blur she could make out Linc’s scrunched face and behind him, the man with the broad-rimmed hat. He altered the view, was like a hole in the shining sky.
“Luce, this man, Al, he found you! We were talking about our work and things and we saw you go down so we ran and he spotted you in the water, Luce, he got you out. Can you hear me? Luce, I could have lost you!”
The sirens blotted out his voice, then more faces and hands but Lucinda felt the gurney sway like the river, holding her, lifting her higher. The sun was like a dancing flower, sweet, vivid. She reached out, found Linc.
“What?” he said. “What, Luce?”
“I know how to breathe underwater,” she whispered.
“No, Luce, no, you nearly drowned.”
“Linc.” She felt the blanket snugged around her, the blood pressure cuff pulled tight. “I breathed underwater. I’ll be okay now. Grandpa said so.”
They took her then. Linc climbed in bedside her, put her camera safely into one of her hands, held the other in his. He peered out the door windows for that man, for Al. Linc had to get his number, thank him, meet up with him, introduce him to Luce. They pulled away while Linc looked and looked. But he was not there, nor anywhere. His hat sailed over the river, gone.