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Candy sat silently on the dock, her rough, tan feet pulsing back and forth in the murky, cold water of the lake. The sound of the calm, moving water around her toes mixed with the hush of wind in the trees and the hum of distant conversations. In the center of the water, a single houseboat bobbed up and down under the sunrise, in rhythm with gusts of warm, humid wind. Candy’s white cotton skirt lay gently against her legs, the seam skimming the tops of her rough knees. She buried her palms in her lap and played with her string bracelets, revealing thin tan lines where each one had previously rested. Her eyelids blinked shut, forcing out the warm, salty tears that had pooled over her bright grey irises. The tears streamed over her flushed cheeks and hung desperately onto her soft jaw before dropping past her bruised neck and into her lap. She hated summer.
From the beginning of September until mid-June each year, Candy’s father lived in a small town in the center of Texas. He spent most of his time at bars, taking shots and smoking rare, foreign cigars with a group of hefty, handle-bar-moustache-adorned men. She didn’t know why he left, but he always returned to their house on the lake in Maine each summer. This year, he had come home early. It was May 30th, and Candy had awoken to a dark room and the sound of construction boots clomping heavily up the wooden stairs of the lake house. Her drunken father had swung her bedroom door open, slamming it into the familiar dent in the wall behind it and slurring her name loudly. Candy stood in front of her father as he had shouted at her, spitting through his long moustache as he did so. She had bowed her head and shut her eyes tightly, bracing herself for what she knew was following the shouts.
Candy’s mother was the quintessential self-conscious, worn-out woman. Candy and she lived alone in the house on the lake all year, and she was usually found wasting time under the covers or staring into space. Around the beginning of June, year after year, Candy’s mother would suddenly become energized, probably by pure fear and dread, and would magically spring out of bed, a dead flower suddenly brought back to life by spring. She would recover her apron from the back corner of the closet and awaken the mop and feather-duster from their hibernation. Within the first week of June every year, pies would be baked and each nook and cranny of the house would sparkle. This year was different. June had not yet arrived when Candy’s father busted into the house. Candy’s mother stayed in bed this year.
Candy pulled her numb feet out of the cold morning water and rested them on the dock, pulling her knees up to her chest. In the house behind her, her mother slept and her father sat in the living room, a beer and a cigarette his only company. Candy gently ran her fingers over the marks on her neck, flinching as the pain shot through her body. She leaned back against the splintery wooden post of the dock, releasing the tension in her neck. Remembering the day before, she longed for the comfort of school. Graduating was not a gift for her. There would be no college education, no freedom.
Once the sun had risen midway into the sky, she gradually stood up, brushing off her skirt and wiping the remnants of old tears from her face. After peeling off her skirt and letting her dry, curly, dirty-blonde hair down, she dove gracefully into the placid lake. Her ratty t-shirt stuck to her back and stomach as she came up for air before she continued underwater toward the center of the lake. The cool water rushed over her body, and her chest tightened from the temperature.
Even though the sun hung high in the sky, the lights in the houseboat remained lit. She pulled herself up onto the bottom step of the ladder at the back of the boat and climbed over the side onto the worn wooden deck. Looking toward the shore, she could just barely make out the figure of her stocky, inebriated father teetering in the doorway to her house, a tiny toddler learning to walk. The combination of the hot sun and the light wind on her smooth skin sent a chill up her spine as she tilted her face up to catch the warmth of the late morning sun on her damp skin. She could hear bustling below her, and the thump of bare feet got slowly louder. Candy whipped her head around just in time to see him appear on the deck from around the corner.
His name was Derek. They had met at the family-owned general store about one block from Candy’s house. He had stood behind her in the checkout while she paid for her raspberry iced tea and newspaper in quarters and nickels. He had snickered, and immediately her face flushed with pink. She had turned around, expecting to lecture him, and instead he had leaned in and kissed her softly on her sunburned, chapped lips.
They sat entwined on the deck of the boat, his muscular, callused fingers laced through her thin, nimble ones. She sobbed into the crevice where his strong, freckled shoulder met his neck, her face wet with lake-water, tears, and sweat.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped between sobs, “it’s just that when he comes home something flips a switch and I collapse inside.”
He nodded and pulled her closer, rocking her back and forth with the boat. Tears dripped onto her bottom lip, sliding down into her mouth. The familiar saltiness of warm tears drifted through her mouth, carving a path down the center of her tongue. She dug her face deeper into him, his warm, smooth skin that caressed her cheeks. With him she felt safe. With him she felt whole.
Back on the dock, Candy lingered, debating her options. She took a deep breath and walked toward the back door of the house. As slow as the change of the seasons, she slid open the screen door. It stuck to its track, and she wrestled with it, forcing it shut. Her father slept on the old, overstuffed plaid couch in the living room, the television flickering silently in front of him. Candy stared at the woman on the television, lost in the stranger’s happiness. She longed for a sincere smile to creep onto her face when she least expected it. From the couch, her father suddenly snored loudly, waking Candy from her fantasy.
One month later, as June’s delicate heat subtly developed into July’s fierce boil, Candy lay flat on her stomach, sprawled on her bedroom floor. She breathed rhythmically, her body rising and falling with each intake of breath. The sun moved across the sky, chasing the shadows in her bedroom. As a gleam of sun tip-toed onto her swollen face, Candy’s eyes fluttered open. She struggled to push herself to her feet as her body throbbed. Limping throughout her room, she packed. Her face was flushed with anger, and even though the pain was excruciating, her muscles tightened with fury.
The door clicked as she slowly turned the shiny knob, and the bottom of it whispered and whirred as it slid against the stained, faded, pink carpet. Slinking out the door, she softly stepped over her father’s drunken body which lay motionless in the hallway. She propped him up against the wall, and his head bobbed up and down as drool slid down his stubbly chin. The stairs creaked below her bare, bruised feet as she focused on muffling her heavy breathing. She had always imagined it would be dark when she made her escape, and the rays of sunlight echoing throughout the lake house were slightly disconcerting.
Turning back, she stared at the lump at the top of the steps. He smacked his lips and snored deeply as he leaned over sideways, slowly laying his head onto the ground. Candy dropped her bag onto the torn leather couch in the living room and slipped outside. She stood somberly in front of the lake, gazing blankly at the houseboat. Wading in the shallow, warm water, her mind began to spin, and she walked further into the soothing water.
When the tides rippled around her waist, she dunked herself under, begging herself to take a deep breath. She surfaced, gasping for air as drops of water flew from her shaking body. This won’t work. I have to go deeper, she thought. She drifted further into the lake and floated on her back until the sun hurt her eyes. She was not afraid. Exhaling, she slipped below the surface. Propelling herself downward, she felt seaweed curl around her toes, embracing her, welcoming her. Her eyes were shut tightly as her lungs burned, pleading for oxygen.
Strong arms wrapped around her waist, and while her mind wished to stay with the seaweed, her body relaxed and allowed the second body to pull her towards the sunlight. How he had managed to carry her to shore, she did not know, but her body was relieved to lay in the sun on the smooth grass. Her skin soaked in the warmth, a sponge immersed in water. Derek stayed with her for an hour, stroking her drying hair as she lie in a daze. Her eyes fluttered shut and she drifted into a tranquil sleep until she heard the shot.
She jolted upright, her heart pounding. Derek had left, and dark grey clouds covered the sun. Standing up, Candy cautiously made her way inside, only to find her mother standing at the top of the stairs with a shotgun on the floor next to her bare feet. Her hair was a mess and mascara ran down her cheeks onto her stained nightgown. Candy collapsed to her knees, buckling over and sobbing into her palms. The old man was silent and motionless where he had slept before.
By September, Candy had settled in with Derek in the houseboat. Candy’s father had not gone to Texas, nor would he ever return to the lake. She had not attended his funeral. She visited her mother in jail about once a month, but in actuality, Candy wanted to have nothing to do with the woman. The sun rose lower in the sky each day as summer turned to fall, and Candy felt safe.