Fiction by B.E. Scully
On the same day Jo turned thirteen, a girl drowned down by the lake. Summer vacation had just started and Jo didn’t hear about it until everything was already over. The story had it that the girl fell out of a boat and didn’t even try to swim to safety. She just disappeared beneath the water and wasn’t seen again until the rescuers found her at the bottom. At least that’s how the story had it.
After that the day of Jo’s birth and the day of the girl’s death were linked in her mind in some shared underwater world. Or maybe the link had always been there, right from the beginning. After all, she’d had an uneasy start in life, being named for something she wasn’t. With two girls in the family already, her parents had tried one more time for a boy.
Mother’s first words, faithfully preserved in Jo’s pink baby book: “What is it?”
The father’s first words went unrecorded.
They named her Jo, after her father Joseph, a compromise correction.
“Is that short for Joanne?” (or Josephine or Josie or even Jojo, as if she were a clown or small dog).
“No, just Jo,” she would say.
So when Jo met Ray and all he said was, “Hey, Jo, nice to meet you,” she decided right away to be on his side. Ray had been hired to teach martial arts at the local gym the same summer Jo turned thirteen and the girl drowned. Ray was somewhere within that wide and mysterious age range between Jo and her parents, but like a lot of things about Ray, nobody really knew for sure.
He had a deep and seemingly permanent tan—not the carefully monitored sun-screened kind, but the leathered sienna of road work and hard labor. Jo thought Ray might even have Asian blood in him. She liked to imagine him as an orphan in some mysterious, remote Chinese village, raised by black-belt monks until his true identity as the emperor’s long-lost son forced him to go into hiding as a simple martial arts instructor in Blue River, Oregon.
Ray had come out of nowhere that summer, but the rumor was that he’d lost his previous job because of his drinking, not his secret identity.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Bill Hanes down at the Quick Mart liked to say. “My cousin drives an ambulance down in Dorsey, and his team responded to a call where a car had run clear up onto the sidewalk. Driver was slumped over the wheel, dead out of it. Turns out it was our own Ray Shultz, believe it or not.”
What everyone did believe was that drinking problem or not, Ray was one odd duck, always going on about the spirit world and unseen energies and that sort of New Age thing. But he also was one hell of a martial arts instructor, and they weren’t half as easy to come by in Blue River, Oregon, as drunks.
Jo liked to be near the strange energy that vibrated outward from Ray like a live wire, electrifying and maybe a little dangerous, if you got too close. Just as electrifying was the way his body matched his personality—lean and sinewy, muscles wound like tight cords of rope. He had a habit of straining forward whenever he got excited, as if he were trying to burst out of his own skin and get ahead of himself somehow.
“The power of the mind—you wouldn’t believe what you can accomplish with meditation alone,” he’d tell her when she lingered around after class just to be near him.
“I believe it.”
Ray laughed, but not in the way most adults did when talking to kids, as if they were making fun of them. “I’ll bet you do. You’re a believer from the word go.”
Jo liked these conversations more than anything else in the world. Ray understood things that most of the people she knew had never even heard of. He also seemed to understand things about her that no one else did—not even her best friend Niki, who knew when she’d starting menstruating and what bra size she wore.
That summer Niki had gotten a boyfriend, and because she’d done it first she now sincerely wanted Jo to have one, too.
“Come with me and Andy bike riding this Thursday. He has a friend who is pretty cute.”
“Can’t. I have class with Ray on Thursdays.”
“Ray, Ray, Ray, that’s all you ever talk about. Maybe you should go out with Ray.”
Jo tried to will the flush out of her cheeks, but Niki was too quick. “Oh, my God! You’ve got a crush on him!”
“You know what would be so funny? If you sent him an anonymous love letter. Like a ‘Secret Admirer’ type of thing!”
“No. Way. With double capitals and periods, Nik.”
They eventually settled on a card with a sunset on the front and the line “You’re so special to me” printed inside.
“You want to come off as mature,” Niki advised her. “Interested, but not too interested.”
They addressed it to the gym in care of Ray Shultz, and Jo’s stomach twisted into a fist when the mailbox door swung shut. No getting it back now.
She had to wait two more excruciating days for Thursday. When the time finally came and Jo saw Ray standing at the door waiting for the yoga class before theirs to end, she almost turned around and ran home.
Mr. Burns was peering through the door at the class, mostly women, bending into downward-facing-dog. “You know one of the main differences between old women and young ones? The young ones’ tits are way up here,” he said, holding his hands high up against his chest, “and the old ones’ tits are waaaaaay down here.” He dropped his hands below his waist and swung them back and forth as if he had imaginary breasts flopping around like water balloons ready to break.
Jo pressed against the wall in an attempt to be invisible. They must not have seen her standing there—Mr. Burns, who had three kids of his own, would never have said that if he’d seen her standing there. The rest of the men, including Ray Shultz, never would have laughed.
But then Mr. Burns looked straight at her. “Tuck that away for a few more years, kid. Use ‘em while you got ‘em.”
He winked and the other men laughed even louder. Jo didn’t know if she was supposed to laugh along with them or not.
All through class, the card and Mr. Burns and the water balloons kept getting mixed up in Jo’s mind. By the time Ray settled everyone into their cool-down meditation, she could hardly keep still. She opened one eye just a little, in order to watch him. He was moving around the room adjusting postures like always, and for the first time it occurred to her that maybe Ray hadn’t even gotten the card. Maybe someone at the desk had opened it up by mistake and thrown it away. Jo felt a hand resting on top of her head, so light and quick that once it was gone, she wasn’t sure it had been there at all. But when Ray told everyone to open their eyes, he was looking right at her. She knew that from then on, something new would be between them.
When Niki asked her about the card, Jo didn’t hesitate. “Oh, he never said anything about it,” she said, which actually wasn’t a lie. “He probably never even got it.”
For the rest of the summer Jo went to the mall and rode bikes with Niki and flirted with boys and hung around after martial arts class with Ray without one consideration of what this new something between them might be. But the martial arts club’s annual Labor Day retreat at the campground by the lake considered it for her.
* * *
The adults had the downstairs rooms and the kids were herded upstairs into open bunks, boys on one side, girls on the other. There were lots of little kids and teenagers running around, but nobody Jo’s age. Her older sister Diane was glued to her boyfriend, and Ray was so busy getting everyone settled in that he hadn’t even noticed she was there. By the time Jo got her soggy sandwich and apple for lunch, she was beginning to regret she’d even come.
The alcohol arrived after dinner. The women stayed inside drinking beer out of cans and cleaning up the dishes while the men went out back to drain the kegs, their loud bursts of laughter punctuating their wives’ hushed conversation. The little kids were in bed and the teenagers had disappeared into the woods, and Jo wandered around feeling stupid and out of place until she discovered the front porch. It was dark and deserted—the perfect hiding place. She leaned against the back wall and looked at the stars, sleepy with dinner and the long trip. She had just started to doze off when the bang of the screen door brought her to her feet.
It was Mr. Burns, stumbling around in the dark. Jo thought about water balloons swinging waaaaaay down here, and pressed further into the shadows.
“Damn women tying up the bathroom all the time.”
She was just about to make her escape when the zip of his pants stopped her. He arched a stream of urine through the air and then staggered backwards, fumbling with his zipper.
“Hey, there, what are you doing out here in the dark all by yourself?”
“Just looking at the stars.”
“Are you afraid to come out back with all of us wild men?”
Surprisingly quick, he put his hands against the wall, one on each side of Jo’s head like flannel-shirt bars.
“How about a little kiss for a wild man, huh?”
His alcohol-fueled mouth moving toward hers set her in motion. With the timing of a slapstick comedy, Jo ducked under Mr. Burns’ arms just as he leaned forward in a drunken kiss. At the same instant the screen door banged open a second time, and Mrs. Burns stepped out.
“What the hell is going on here?”
Even though Mr. Burns was still leaning with his hands against the now empty wall, Jo somehow understood that the question had been directed at her.
“Nothing. We were just . . . looking at the stars,” she stammered. Even many years later she would marvel at how instinctively she had known to tell the lie.
“Get inside,” Mrs. Burns told her husband. “You’re drunk.” She grabbed his arm and dragged him through the door without a backward glance.
Jo stayed on the porch for as long as she could stand the chilly night air and then ducked inside and up the stairs. She was almost to the top when Ray caught up with her.
“Hey, I’ve been looking for you.” He was as drunk as Mr. Burns, holding onto the railing to steady himself. “I’ve been wanting to ask you—am I really?”
“So special to you. The card. You sent it, right?”
He was grinning down at her, waiting for an answer he already knew. For a second Jo thought about denying it, just to see what he would say. But before she had a chance to answer one way or the other, he reached out and put his hand on top of her head the way he had done in class, and then ran his fingers down the side of her face, light as feathers. She felt something in her stomach go strange, but she forced herself to stay still. Just then loud, drunken voices drifted up the stairwell.
“How about a little midnight dip down at the lake?”
“You mean a little midnight skinny dipping?”
“Maybe the ghost of that dead girl will be floating around.”
“Better bring along something stronger than beer then!”
“Hey, where’s Ray? Ray! Where are you, man? We’re going for a swim with a dead girl!”
Ray stood looking down at her in the shadowed light. Then he ruffled her hair like she was a little kid or a favorite pet and disappeared down the stairs without a backward glance.
* * *
The next morning her sister Diane woke her up too early. “Did you sleep okay last night?”
“I thought I heard Ray up here,” Diane said, forcing a laugh. “Was he trying to make a move on you or something?”
“Of course not! He was just saying goodnight, jeez!”
“Okay, well, whatever. Let’s go get some breakfast. I’m starving.”
Downstairs they joined the group of women gathered in the dining room drinking coffee. Diane settled into the last chair, leaving Jo the floor.
“I have to shave my legs every single day or else I’m like two sheets of sandpaper,” one of the women was explaining. “It’s such a pain.”
“Definitely a pain,” Diane joined in without missing a beat. “Men get off so lucky only having to worry about their faces.”
“Men get off lucky in a lot of ways,” another woman said.
The voice was hard and cold, and it took a second for Jo to realize that it had come from Mrs. Burns. When Jo looked up, Mrs. Burns was staring straight at her. “You might not understand what we’re talking about, honey. Are you even old enough to have body hair yet?”
The naked hatred in her voice silenced the room. The women knew that the tribe had been disrupted, that some unspoken code had been broken. As if by some primal, equally unspoken understanding, they just as quickly concluded that Jo was to blame. Diane gave her a pitying look, but what could she do? Survival depends on the tribe.
Jo made herself invisible for as long as possible and then slipped out of the house. The men were out back passing an old rifle back and forth and shooting at empty beer cans. Ray saw her standing there and gave her a wink, but she turned away. Mr. Burns had seen her, too.
“Hey, Ray!” he shouted. “It’s not safe with her out here and all these bullets flying around!”
“Go on back inside, Jo,” Ray said, grinning and trying to catch her eye. “Only us overgrown boys are allowed to play cowboy.”
But Jo didn’t feel like grinning and she didn’t feel like going back inside. She wandered into the woods and made her way down the path to the lake. Piles of crushed beer cans and empty bottles of booze littered the shoreline like evidence.
Jo walked to the end of the wooden pier and sat down. No one else was around. The water was a still, unbroken mirror. Jo thought about the girl down at the bottom of the lake. The morning air was damp and cold, but Jo suddenly stood up and stripped off her clothes. She stood there shivering in the mist rising off the water and then dove into the mirror, cracking its smooth perfection.
The ice-cold shock turned her limbs rigid and stiff, like a dead body. Jo let herself sink to the bottom where the drowned girl waited. When she didn’t sink fast enough she pushed through the water and swam deeper into the silent underwater world.
She finally touched the sand and stones of the lake bottom. Her lungs were squeezed tight and her head seemed to be thumping in time to her heartbeat. A line of black began creeping into the edge of Jo’s vision when she felt a solid something fill her hand—the bones of the drowned girl! But no, it was a stone, perfectly round and smooth apart from an oval-shaped groove on one side.
The blackness crept closer as the stone and the dead girl became mixed together in Jo’s mind. The same water that had taken the girl had given the stone. It had come from the lake’s rocky depths and been shaped by its currents. It had also shaped itself just by holding fast while every other stone and watery life form flowed past and collided with and slipped across its solid surface. And the stone had shaped all of those things in turn.
Jo laid her thumb in the oval-shaped groove. It fit perfectly, as seamless as if for thousands of years the water had been carving it especially for her. She tried it a few more times, taking her thumb out of the groove and putting it back—a perfect fit every time. She wrapped her hand around the stone’s solid weight and kicked furiously until she broke the surface of the water. Keeping hold of the stone, Jo swam for the shore.
* * *
Back at the campground everyone was settling down to lunch. Her sister was there waiting for her.
“Where have you been?” Diane demanded. “You didn’t even help set the table! And why is your hair wet?”
Jo didn’t bother with a lie this time. She reached into her pocket and there it was—the stone. It knew whether the girl had tried to swim to shore or just let the water take her. But the stone wasn’t telling. Solid and silent, the stone didn’t need to answer or even listen to the questions.
“You’d better get a seat before you end up having to sit on the ground,” Diane said.
Jo started to search the table to see where Ray and Mr. Burns were sitting. Then she realized it didn’t really matter anymore. It didn’t even matter if she ended up sitting on the ground. Like the water, she could give and she could take; like the stone, she could shape herself even as she was shaped by others. She could keep her secrets or tell them; she could stay in the water or swim to shore.
Jo slid her thumb into the stone’s perfect groove and smiled a secret, underwater smile.