When she spotted me, I looked around like I had no idea how I’d gotten to the pond. Maybe Old Higgins felt the same way. He never budged, even as Lia came buzzing with energy, her bare feet slapping the planks of the dock as she came at me. “Preacher Higgins is going to baptize me!”
Lia’s hair was like a nest of live wires. She bolted towards me as Preacher Higgins struggled to get to stand. “No, no, tomorrow evening. Best do it at sunset.”
Lia shrieked. “On my birthday!”
I scratched the back of my neck, unsure what to say or how to say it. And how was I supposed to greet my preacher? Shake his hand like at church? Nod my head? We were out at the pond in the middle of the night—the pond where I’d just seen him stark naked in the moonlight. And now he was agreeing to baptize this crazy friend of mine. I stuck with the handshake.
Preacher Higgins must not have seen it, still gazing out at nothing. Lia busted in between us, her smile filling the night. “Isn’t this great? Okay, so we’ll meet here at eight tomorrow, right?”
I retrieved my hand. “Wait, here?”
“Yeah.” Lia shot me a look. I looked again to Higgins, who still hadn’t even seen me as far as I could tell. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought Lia was blackmailing him. Another look at Lia’s face. Oh geez, she was blackmailing him. I saw in her eyes as she aimed a crooked smile at Higgins and said, “Right, Preach?”
Old Higgins blinked with an obedient nod. “Huh? Oh, that’s right,” he said, coming to. “Now, if you don’t mind, I need to get some rest.”
He brushed past me, his eyes finding mine for the first time and he offered a nod. “Matthew.” Then he trudged up the path, head bowed and shoulders drooping.
I was still watching Higgins retreat into the darkness when Lia snatched my hand and twirled, sliding under it, breaking into her own midnight dance.
“Lia, what in the world?”
She did a ninja kick, then spun around again until my arm was wrapped around her and it made me sort of dizzy. Dizzier, I guess. She exhaled. “This is going to be so cool.”
“Cool? Getting baptized is cool?”
“Yeah, I’ll wear a white robe,” she said, breaking free, setting her hair on her head. “And he’ll hold the back of my head and say,”—her voice went low— “By the power vested in me…”
She let her hair drop. I shook off the dizziness because I had questions about this sort of thing. “Lia, he’s not marrying you. He’s baptizing you. And…why?”
“What do you mean why? I’ve never been baptized. And on my birthday, too. This will be fun.”
Fun. A roller coaster was fun. Getting baptized, in slimy Greer Pond by a preacher who was a few strands short of a combover was not what I’d consider fun. But it was pointless to argue with her right then.
Another kick. She grabbed my arm for balance. “Well, what should we do now?”
I heard Cory and Ethan’s voices in my head.
Maybe if she stopped being a freak…
Maybe if she wore normal clothes…
I looked her over. Her baggy t-shirt hanging over the khaki shorts. Her dark legs. She was lost in her madness just like I was lost in thought when I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “Lia, does your Mom care that you wander around all night?”
She spun to a stop, leveled her eyes on me, the crickets and bullfrogs clucking around between us. “What?”
The strength in her voice knocked me back a bit. I stammered. “No, I just mean…” I shrugged, “Well, does she?”
She planted her feet, dropping her dark, slender arms to her sides. Where she’d just been a firefly, a creature in the night, she was now a stone. “Do your parents know where you are right now?”
“Well, no, but I mean…”
Lia shook her head and started up the path. “I thought you would be happy for me,” she said over her shoulder.
I started to chase after her, then looked back to the trees, the pond…back up the path where Lia’s shirt floated into the dark. Then I said, “I was going to say that we could take Higgin’s boat out on the water.”
She stopped at the bend, wiped back her hair. She turned slowly and I wondered what Lia I mmight get: The magical one or the broken one. The quick scrape of footsteps answered my question. Her smile lit the way. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said, still not able to believe what I was saying. “He’s got a canoe over there.” I pointed to a row of black walnut trees, wondering what I was saying or how to stop myself from saying it. “We could slide it in and…” Then what? I had no idea, the pond was about the size of a convenience store parking lot. I shrugged.
Lia’s steps slowed. She tilted her head. Then she ran up so close that her breaths were warm on my face. So that I could make out the flecks of mischief swimming in her eyes. Sometimes with Lia, it felt like she was just a really good friend. But other times, like now, I was so aware that she was a girl—an extremely pretty girl—that it felt like my heart was climbing up my throat.
“Oh Matthew, just when I think you’re too lame to be saved. You totally redeem yourself.”
I turned away so that I could swallow. I knew Higgins wouldn’t be coming back tonight, not after Lia had done whatever she’d done to him, and besides, if he was going to baptize her, what was the harm in knocking the canoe around his pond?
We took the overgrown trail to the canoe, grass sliding against our ankles and legs. We not so carefully flipped it over, making all sorts of racket as I dragged it down to the bank.
I could only find one dry rotted lifejacket. I handed it to Lia. She frowned and flung it into the grass.
Next, we slid the canoe into the water, the muck squishy beneath my feet. I held the canoe close and steady as Lia found her balance and climbed inside. Then I went back for the paddle. I tried not to think so much about what I was doing, being down there so late, sneaking around again.
Once we were both seated, I pushed off and with a small splash we set out for the center of the pond. Lia held tight on the sides, rocking with her usual inability to sit still. I worked to keep the canoe from wobbling in resistance.
We drifted out. The black of the woods surrounded us. It was like we were the only two people on our own planet. An owl hooted in the distance. I avoided Lia’s eyes, piercing the night. I could feel her watching me, and I thought it was kind of nice to be watched, to feel like I was in control of something, even an old canoe in a tiny pond. I’d never had a girl look at me like that, and it made me feel like someone, almost.
It was quiet, only the sounds of the night to go along with our thoughts. The hoots of the owl, the gentle bump of the paddle against the hull. The clouds blanketed the moon, but it was there just the same.
A frog plunked into the pond. Lia jumped, then laughed like it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen. She looked out towards the sky, letting the night wash her face of the day.
Maybe it was how Lia looked at me, or just that we were under the cover of night, but I found the courage to ask her again. “So like, why do you want to get baptized?”
She kept her face to the sky, her eyes closed. “Because maybe then God will help me. Maybe if he or she sees that I’m trying, making an effort…then maybe…” she stopped and sighed. “I guess it sounds pretty stupid, huh?”
I knocked a paddle against the canoe. I started to open my mouth to tell her it didn’t sound stupid at all when she met my eyes and shook her head. In that one headshake, I saw the fear and the pain she usually kept hidden. I wondered if she could hear my heart knocking around. If she knew how badly I wanted to help her. I thought about what Dad said about her Mom shuffling back and forth to jail. And then I just said, “Okay.”
Her fingers found the dog tag from her collar. She kissed the dog tag and tucked it back in. I lifted the paddle, pushed us to the right to guide us along, to hold up my end of this canoe, to do something with my arms and my brain instead of trying to think of something to say. Lia’s face went back to the sky and I stopped paddling. Then she nudged me with her foot.
I smiled and nudged her back, my heart climbing again. Slowly, her foot slid up along mine slow and wrapped around my ankle.
And my smile dropped like an anchor.
Because it wasn’t Lia’s foot. It was…
Hot panic shot through my limbs. I lunged left for the water. The last thing I heard was Lia screaming as she bailed and I knew I should’ve helped her but I was already in, the warm water that was like a bath. It took me down. I kicked and flailed, just waiting to feel two sharp teeth puncturing my skin. All I could think about were the snakes coming for my head.
I swam for the dock. From the corner of my eye I saw Lia swimming too and once again I wanted to help but a thousand water moccasins brushed against my legs. My arms. Or it could have been grass but I wasn’t taking chances. I swam for the dock, but I was confused and so I must have been swimming the wrong way, in circles, splashing and heaving and wind milling for my life.
I reached for the dock, flung myself out of the water, and pulled myself up where I rolled over and stripped down.
Snakes. In my waistband. I ripped my shirt off but it got stuck on my face, wet and heavy and I yanked and yanked until it was off and I ran in place. I jumped up and down, checking my pants. Somewhere in my mind it registered that Lia had swam to the dock and was dripping wet and heaving with laughter. That there were no snakes. That we were going to live. That my shirt was off. And that was almost worse.
I turned from her and bent down, searching for the wet wad that was my t-shirt. I snatched it and fought to get it back over my head.
I poked my head through and tugged it down, wiping my face. Trying to fix myself but not my throbbing heartbeat. Lia was a soaking wet too, and still laughing, trying to say something but giggling too hard to get the words out. Her shirt was wrapped around her body, dripping and she had grass stuck to her legs. Again, I thought about how I’d just dove in and bailed on her.
A gentleman I was not.