by Julia Phillips
While we waited in the grass, the old man spent some minutes on the dock, balancing tall candles so we could swim. Anya shook the bugs off her bare legs. The old man swayed and Alex said he was drunk. Maybe he was, I couldn’t tell anything in the dark, but as he stumbled toward the water with his candles and lighter, I put out my hand and called a warning to him. “I don’t see very well,” he explained, and knelt again to the wet wood to place another candle there. My father had given us the old man’s phone number before we left but had said nothing about his drinking, nothing about his eyes.
Anya hadn’t said anything to him but her name. Her mother had asked us to take care of her. To use slang and spend the ride down to Green Cove reminding her of all the different foods, American pop bands and sneaker brands. Her mother wanted her to arrive prepared.
On the lake’s opposite side, fireflies burst into light and Anya pointed and asked, “What are those?”
“Fireflies,” I said, “Lightning bugs. They’re insects that glow. You don’t have those in Russia?”
“We have them,” she said, “but I have never seen so many, so big, at once.” Above the far trees the sky was flashing white and grey. Once we’d made our way out of the grass and past the line of low flames I pointed up and said to her, “See that lightning?” “It is like…” she said, “people taking pictures,” and held her hands up next to her face to mime a camera for me. I nodded.
The old man made us promise to shout if anything happened. He peered through the night and gestured to where inner tubes and a beach ball floated near the opposite shore. In the tiny candlelight and the hot sweeping dark we took off our shoes and T-shirts and stood wavering at the dock’s edge. “You go,” Alex said, and I touched Anya’s back: “You!” She screamed and hopped back. The old man’s dog pushed into the water from the shoreline and swam, snuffling and grass-covered, out in front of us. “One—two—three!” Alex and I shouted and faked a step forward. Anya hopped in place. “What if there is a monster under there!” she said. The dog barked, halfway across the lake already.
I crouched and dipped my hand in. “It’s warm,” I promised her, “It’s so warm.” I slipped off the dock into the lake. Above us, the tall clouds flickered with lightning. The water was silky and smelled fresh like that day’s rain. Anya jumped in and when Alex followed, smashing onto his back, we both shrieked and turned our faces from the wave he sent up.
The old man’s dog kept barking. I called to Alex and we swam to each other and kissed, our mouths tasting like lake water. The dog swam over too and circled us, panting, its thin legs moving frantically. “Anya?” I called. She shouted, “This is the first really crazy thing I have ever done!” Her accent split her words into all their odd and lonely parts. Alex and I laughed and the sky lit up white. Underneath the water the dog’s claws ran across my lifted legs and I shouted back to Anya, “Come here and I’ll pull you on the inner tube.” Anya lifted her thin arms and started over, and we swam to meet her in the middle.
The waitress stood over our booth with her pen ready. Anya looked away from her to us. “A Dr. Pepper,” she said slowly, and the girl began to scribble her order down, but Anya wasn’t done: “Can I have one?”
“Sure,” Alex said.
“And an orange juice?” she added. I smiled. “You can have whatever you want,” I said. After the girl tucked her pen back into her apron and left, Anya said quietly, “I love American orange juice.”
For dinner she had both Caesar salad and a hot dog so she got too full to finish her fries and I scooped them gladly onto my plate. Our waitress had snuck a gummy worm into her platter next to the bun and pale lettuce leaves and Anya picked it up with two small fingers. “Why is this here?”
“Because she likes you, I guess.”
I shrugged. “She thinks you’re cute. Try it, it’s sour.”
“I know,” Anya said. She put the blue half in her mouth for a minute then drew it back out. “Can we get ice cream?”
“We can do whatever you want,” Alex said.
At the ice cream shop down the block, Anya ordered lemon sorbet and a raspberry smoothie. We walked slowly through a parking lot and past a tiny jungle gym to a patio where a group of men was setting up instruments. Alex pointed out the drums to her and she stood, ice cream in both fists, to watch them assembled. I licked my chocolate cone until she jumped and I jumped too.
“Byelka!” she said. “How is that in English again?” We all said “squirrel” at the same time.
“They’re so cute,” she said, and I shook my head in disgust.
“Julia thinks they’re ugly,” Alex said.
“They’re just rats,” I said, “Rats with fluffy tails.”
“They’re not. They’re marsupials,” he said.
I scoffed. “Have you ever seen a squirrel with babies in a pouch? They’re rodents. Besides, marsupials only live in Australia.”
He thought in silence about squirrel pouches. “An’,” he said, “what do you think?”
She was still looking at the drum set and drinking from her smoothie, the lemon sorbet running sticky down the back of her other hand. “What?” she said.
“Is a squirrel a marsupial or a rodent?”
“A marsupial is like a kangaroo,” I explained.
She considered this. “I think,” she said, “it is not either of those, but it is the other thing.” We accepted this and watched with her as the band finished setting up.
We turned off the radio as we got closer and the mountains started to interfere with the signal. The highway in front of us curved into stone and green and tall woods. In the silence, Anya said from the back seat, “Will you miss me?”
“Of course we’ll miss you,” I said, “Of course we will.”
She leaned back against the leather and folded her arms. “You’ll forget all about me.”
Alex half-turned so his seatbelt strained against his shoulder. “How could we forget you?” he said, his eyes wide. “We’ll miss you so much.”
“We’ll cry,” I said, “every day.” She laughed unhappily. This had been the wrong thing to say so I became serious again: “We love having you here, we’re going to miss you so much. I bet you’re going to forget us, though.”
“No,” she said, “I’m going to hate it. I just know I’m going to hate it.”
I ran my hands over the steering wheel. Alex kept looking at her, half his body pressed into the side of his seat, his neck bent awkwardly forward. She looked down at her cell phone and then dropped it to the floor of the car. As we turned around another bend, the phone slid back to collide with her bags.
“What activities will you take this year?” I tried.
“Oh,” she said and sighed. “Weaving. And swimming.”
“Riflery?” Alex asked and held up one hand in the shape of a gun.
She smiled. “Maybe. I did that one year.”
“And archery?” I asked.
“I bet all your friends can’t wait to see you.” She sighed again. In front of us, the mountains threw huge shadows across the land. After a few miles she said, “Will you come into camp with me?”
“Alex will carry all your bags to your cabin,” I said.
“And we’ll tell the counselors that they have to let you eat as much candy as you want,” he said.
“And stay up late.”
“And watch High School Musical.”
“They don’t let us eat candy,” she said sourly.
We turned off the highway and followed the road past three stoplights and a Baptist church. Signs for the camp started to appear as the houses thinned out. We turned left, past a waterfall, off the paved road and onto pebbles.
At the last turn-off I rolled down my window and gave her name to a smiling girl with a clipboard. “Cabin 8,” the girl said, and waved at the darkened backseat. Anya didn’t say anything.
“Look at this place!” Alex said, pointing out the window at treehouses and winding streams. “An’, you didn’t say how beautiful it was here. Julia and I are just going to stay forever, you better watch out.” I drove slowly up the hill and parked at the edge of a field where a couple counselors sat in shorts. They jumped up as we opened our doors. “Anna!” one shouted. Another few girls came out of the trees smiling. “Anna!” they said.
While Alex opened the trunk I nudged her. “See how much they missed you!” I said.
He lifted out her duffel bag. She looked at us. “I want to go back to Russia,” she said.
Julia Phillips lives in New York and attends Barnard College. She writes regularly at yulichka.wordpress.com.