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Cross Your Fingers & Try Not to Drown
Author's note: An in-progress work of mine also on Figment
Moonlight shone over the ocean, illuminating the darkness so much that the air seemed to gleam with light. Fireflies glowed nearby and the multitude of trees swayed in the harsh wind, their branches bending as if bowing to the goddess Diana.
Clutching his father’s hand, Max stood on the shore, shivering in his winter jacket; his small, plump cheeks flushed crimson from the cold. “Daddy?” He whispered, his voice lost in the howling of the wind.
Without a word, his father let go of his hand, stepping toward the tide as it rushed closer to the shore. His father was nothing but a dark shadow; a silhouette in the moonlight. He could see very little of the man he called out for and even less as his father walked deeper into the water until he was submerged in it, the unrestrained waves swallowing him whole.
Max waited and waited for his father to return to him, resting against a nearby rock and drawing his knees close to his chest to protect himself against the biting wind. His eyes grew heavy and he rested his head atop his knees.
He awoke later to the sun shining gently on his face and the familiar sound of birds chirping, the sea once again placid and still. His father still had not emerged from the ocean.
The splash that sounded as the swimmers broke the surface of the water brought Max out of his reverie; he stood just in time to cheer with the other supporters in the stands. Scanning the line of swimmers for Lyla, he broke into a grin when he saw her heading the race, cheering louder in encouragement as the other swimmers stayed right on her heels. He and the other spectators watched, taut with anticipation, as the race came to a close and the gun sounded.
The announcer’s voice filled the tightly packed gym, rising above the shouts of family members and friends. “And Lyla James of the University of Michigan comes in first place again at a minute and 5 in the 100 meter freestyle!”
Max’s grin widened and he rolled his eyes in amusement as she gave everyone in the stands the princess wave that she had spent the last few weeks perfecting in the mirror.
He waited patiently in the stands as the girls headed into the locker rooms and the crowd in the gym thinned. Minutes later, Lyla walked out, her caramel colored hair piled atop her head carelessly; her gym bag slung over one shoulder. She bounded up the bleachers and plopped down beside Max, nudging his shoulder.
“You’re doing it again.” She commented lightly, a small smile playing on the edge of her lips.
He blinked and turned to look at her, his dark eyes reflecting the pool’s image. “Doing what?”
“Glaring at the water. It won’t hurt you, you know. It’s just water, Max. It can only hurt you if you let it.”
He nodded and forced a grin. “Says the girl who just won for the third time in a row. You’re gonna be a shoe in for the Olympics at this rate, Ly.”
Red stained her cheeks and she rolled her eyes, swatting him playfully and standing. “Shut up. Now, c’mon, we leaving or what?”
Glancing back at the pool once more, he nodded and stood, grabbing the bag from off her shoulder and swinging it onto his own.
“Such the gentleman,” she teased and he pretended to tip his hat to her.
She laughed, the sound reverberating in the now empty gym, and bounded down the bleachers. Her mossy eyes were alight with mischief and her lips slowly curled into a grin. “I’ll race you to the car. Loser buys coffee for a week.”
“3 days.” He bartered, following her down, careful to avoid getting too close to the water’s edge.
“Ready. Set. Go!” She shouted, taking off, her twinkling laughter trailing behind her.
Max took off after her, his sneakers pounding against the wet concrete. His muscles burned and a fire sparked inside of him, urging him to run faster, to run further, to pass her. He ignored the longing building in him and let Lyla beat him by a fraction of a second, smiling to himself as she beamed.
“Ha!” she shouted, catching her breath, her hair, having tumbled out of its loose bun, now a cascade of loose, wet curls down her back. “I’m ordering the most expensive coffees for the next five days.”
Max chuckled and rolled his eyes. “Yeah, right. You never said where we had to get the coffee from. Wawa, here we come.”
Lyla mock pouted. “But Starbucks is better.”
“Not for my wallet.”
She stuck out her tongue at him as she climbed into the passenger seat of his truck, grimacing as the stifling heat attacked her. “Remind me why I’m friends with a cheapskate like you?”
He grinned, cranking up the AC until it could go no higher. “Because of my dashing good looks and my ability to write a term paper for you in an hour?”
She laughed, lounging back in her seat with her eyes closed as Max drove to his house. “So very true. God, I’m exhausted. I’m so glad that was the last race for the year.”
“Yeah, me too.” He agreed. He hated the smell of chlorine and only his sense of loyalty to Lyla kept him trapped in the cramped gym race after race, the Olympic-sized pool tantalizing him more and more the longer he stayed.
Lyla, who knew of his aversion to all bodies of water, cracked an eye open and smiled at him. His returning smile was automatic. He couldn’t help it; her smiles were contagious.
“Thanks for being my cheerleader.” She murmured, her voice heavy with fatigue.
“Don’t mention it, Ly.” He replied, keeping his eyes on the road.
In no time, the sound of Lyla’s soft snoring filled the car and he was left alone with his thoughts. Usually, his focus stayed on anything but water. School dominated his life and what little parts it didn’t were dominated by Lyla and his family. But today, like every other time he was forced to be around water for an extended period of time, his mind drifted, stirring up memories of his father.
The news reports that had come later had called what his father had done suicide, but Max refused to believe that. From what he could remember, which wasn’t much considering he’d barely been 4 at the time, his father hadn’t drowned. He’d calmly walked into the water and had simply failed to return.
For years afterwards, Max had tried to breech the subject with his mother, but she had refused to listen.
She’d sigh and her cinnamon eyes, ringed with exhaustion, would harden in determination. “You were a child, Maximus. You were exhausted and it was dark. You could not possibly have seen or known exactly what happened. Your father was a sick man, honey, and I am only grateful that he did not drag you with him. We will not discuss this again.”
And they hadn’t. Every time he even hinted at it, she changed the subject entirely. Finally, he’d just given up and kept the thoughts to himself. Oftentimes they nearly drove him crazy, so desperate was he to find out what had truly happened to his father. He couldn’t ignore his instincts and they were shouting- screaming- at him that his father was alive.
His body tensed automatically as he followed the curve in the road towards his house, the lake glittering like a mass of diamonds just outside his window. It called to him, its every wave the lyric of a siren’s song. Ever since he could remember, he had felt the pull of the water in his veins, his soul, his every pore. Never had its hold on him been quite as strong as the day his father had supposedly drowned. That day, before a wave of fatigue had overtaken him, he had very nearly followed his father into the remorseless sea.
He entertained the notion on his darkest nights, wondering if, like his father, he would have stayed submerged; hidden from the world forever and leaving behind unanswered questions.
Pulling into his driveway, Max honked the horn, alerting his mother to his arrival while simultaneously waking Lyla. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes, muttering curses.
“Could you not have woken me up in a nicer way?” She growled, unbuckling her seatbelt.
He grinned, turning off the engine. “I could have. But I chose not to.”
She made a face at him before hopping out of the car, slamming the door hard enough to make him wince. He followed her as she made her way into his house, plopping down on his couch as she’d been doing nearly every day since they’d met almost a decade ago.
“Hi, Heather!” She called, grabbing the remote off of the coffee table and flipping the channel from a balding news caster talking about the latest in politics to a heavily made up rock band dancing around and wailing into microphones.
Heather Fe emerged from the kitchen, wiping all traces of water from her hands with a paper towel, and smiled at the girl that was like a daughter to her. At 43 years of age, Heather barely looked 30. Her golden hair was still just that, not a single gray hair in sight, and her face was nearly unmarked aside from deep smile lines and miniscule crow’s feet. Her hazel eyes lit up when she saw her son, wrapping him into a hug even though he towered over her.
“Max, Lyla, I’m so glad you’re here. I’ve missed the two of you!” She let go of him and surveyed him at arm’s length, studying him the way only a mother could, and tsked in disapproval.
“You haven’t been wearing sunscreen, have you?” she chastised.
“Oh, spare me your maternal worrying, Mom!” He laughed, hugging her tight and pecking the top of her head. She swatted him away playfully, a smile playing on the edge of her lips.
The very moment he let her go, a blur of black and neon pink slammed into him, arms wrapping around his waist in a crushing embrace. He scooped up the blur that had now identified itself as his 14 year old half-sister Meredith, her jet black hair highlighted hot pink, a big difference from the ice blue streaks that had dominated her hair only weeks before.
“Max!” she squealed, smiling brightly as he set her down.
He chuckled. “Hey, Mer. What’s with the pink and black?” He asked, remarking on both her hair and her clothes. Everything she wore, from her nail polish down to her black combat boots, was black or some variation of the color.
She shrugged. “I got bored with blue.”
Glancing over her head, Max shot a questioning look at their mother who shrugged and rolled her eyes. “Well, if you like it, I like it.” He responded, ruffling Meredith’s hair and laughing as she scowled at him in annoyance.
“Lyla James,” Heather remarked, a disapproving tone to her voice. “You will get over here this instant, young lady, and give me a hug!”
Laughing, Lyla got up and dutifully gave Heather a hug. “Sorry, Heather! My favorite band’s video was airing for the first time!”
Heather rolled her eyes. “You kids and your music. Meredith has been drowning out the sound of my voice with her iPod the past few weeks. I’m surprised she hasn’t had the thing surgically attached to her yet.”
Meredith made a face as Max shot her a disapproving look, grumbling. “That’s not true. I listen when she talks. Sometimes.”
“Well, try to do it more often, okay, Mer?” He asked and she nodded reluctantly.
Despite their slight age difference, Max was like a father to Meredith, her own father having died in a car accident when she was seven. She was beginning to go through a rebellious phase, as was common for those her age, and he would make sure that she didn’t drive their poor mother too crazy. The last thing she needed was more stress in her life.
Max looked around, smiling at all of his girls; Lyla and Meredith glued to the TV screen, singing along with the wailing band and his mother in the kitchen, no doubt cooking up a ridiculous dinner as she did whenever he and Lyla dropped by for a visit. This was his family and he loved them.
Yet he couldn’t help but feel that something was missing; a vital part of him that he was smothering simply because he had no idea what to do with it. He frowned, wondering what it could possibly be, when a light hand on his shoulder startled him, pulling him from his thoughts.
“Uh, sorry, Mom, what’d you say?” He asked, shaking the thought from his mind.
She smiled at him. “I just asked if you could run by the store for me. I completely forgot that I was out of olive oil and it’s essential for what I’m cooking.”
He nodded, always one to help. “Sure, Mom. Need anything else while I’m out?”
She thought for a moment before shaking her head, her golden curls bouncing lightly. “No. But you might want to ask the girls; dinner isn’t for a while.”
Nodding, he headed over to where Lyla and Meredith were sitting on the couch, blocking the TV so that they would actually pay attention to him rather than the rock band dancing across the screen.
“I’m heading to the store. You two need anything while I’m out?”
“Um, yeah! I need you to move!” Lyla exclaimed, leaning forward until she was perched precariously on the edge of the couch, trying to see around him.
Max rolled his eyes, not even bothering to wonder what her obsession was with guys that wore more eyeliner than she did, before heading outside and hopping in his truck, loving the sound that his engine made as he started it.
He drove slowly, enjoying the landscape like he hadn’t done on the way there. The lake was still there and still as tantalizing as before, but he ignored it, instead focusing on the wooded area on the opposite side and the bike path that led through it. The path was half hidden by greenery, animal prints permanently etched into the dried mud like handprints in cement. He’d ridden through there what had to be a million times, usually racing Lyla or trying to get home before curfew. He smiled at the memories and turned his attention back to the road, his thoughts wandering.
He drove to Village Market, or The Village, as locals called it. They sold everything there, from milk to ceiling fans, and was the closest supermarket around. He parked in the parking lot, hopping out of the truck and heading inside.
“Max! Home for a visit?” The manager, Vinny, called to him from behind the counter.
“Hey, Vin. Yeah, I’m here for a bit; thanksgiving break and all.” Max replied, smiling at the older man. Vinny had spoiled him rotten as a kid, giving him free candy every time he, Meredith, and his mom had frequented the store.
Vinny nodded. “Say hi to your mom for me, will ya?”
Chuckling, Max nodded. Vinny had also always had the hots for his mom, hence all the free candy. Scanning the aisles for olive oil, Max was unaware of any other people in the store until he bumped into one; bottles of water and packages of tuna scattered onto the floor, making their way under shelves.
“Oh, God, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.” Max apologized immediately, dropping to his knees to grab the runaway items.
Hands joined him in his search as he tried to look the items and he glanced up, ready to apologize once more and assure the person that he would retrieve their things. The words died on his lips as he stared into twin pools of indigo.
Pale pink lips twisted into a smile and formed words. “It’s fine. I’m Marina.”
It was all he could do to find his voice and whisper, “Max.”
They stood in unison, the lost items forgotten.
“I’m really sorry- ”
“It was all my fault- ”
Both laughed as they realized they were speaking over one another and Max motioned for her to go first. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.”
He shook his head, waving away her apology, the sound of her voice washing over him like waves. “Really, it’s my fault. I wasn’t paying attention. I’m sorry.”
She smiled. She had a beautiful smile. “Really, it’s fine. Nothing was damaged.”
He nodded, relieved. Staring into her eyes, he couldn’t seem to remember what he’d even come to the store for. Reluctantly, he tore his gaze from her as ringing emanated from his pocket, excusing himself to answer the call.
“Dude! You didn’t leave the store yet, did you? Grab me some gum, please!” Lyla’s voice came through his phone’s speaker.
“Um, yeah, sure.” He muttered absently. “What kind?”
“Cinnamon, duh!” With that, she hung up, the dial tone sounding in his ears.
Slipping the phone back in his pocket, he smiled apologetically at Marina. “Again, I’m really sorry.”
She shrugged off his apology and held out her hand, beckoning for his phone. He handed it to her and her slim fingers briefly struggled with the touch screen before she got the hang of it. Smiling, she slid the phone back into his pocket, her fingers lingering a few seconds longer than necessary. Her smile widened as Max’s face flushed.
“Call me sometime, okay?”
He nodded mutely, watching as she walked up to the cash register, her pale hair flowing after her, her steps light as though she were walking on water. He still couldn’t remember what he’d come to the store for.
“Got my gum?” Were the first words out of Lyla’s mouth as he opened the front door to his house ten minutes later, her eyes glued to the TV screen.
Digging around in the bag, Max drew out a pack of cinnamon gum and tossed it in her general direction before heading into the kitchen. He walked in on Heather poking her head into the oven, checking on her roast, and waited before she was safely out to speak.
“I got you the vegetable oil you wanted, Mom.” He said, setting the plastic bag down on the table and taking out the oil to give to her.
She frowned slightly. “Max, I said olive oil, hon. Not vegetable.”
Max sighed, her exact words coming back to him. She had said olive oil. “I’m sorry, Mom. I completely blanked once I got to the store. I can go back and get olive oil.” He offered.
Heather shook her head, smiling at him in thanks. “That’s alright, hon. I can use this.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course.” She pecked his cheek. “Don’t worry about it. Go hang out with Lyla and Mer; dinner will be ready soon.”
He nodded and headed in the living room, taking a seat next to Lyla. She immediately swung her legs around, draping her legs across his lap in a position that was utterly familiar to them both.
“How was the store?” She asked casually, looking away from the TV for a moment to smile at him.
He smiled back. “It was good. Well, until I bumped into this girl.”
“Why? Do you know her from somewhere?”
“No, I mean bumped into her. Literally.”
Lyla laughed loudly, as was customary for her. “Seriously?”
Max groaned, cheeks burning from embarrassment. “Seriously. And don’t laugh; it’s not funny.”
She grinned. “Oh contraire, Max. It’s hilarious! What’d you do? What’d she say?”
He shrugged. “Nothing, really. I helped her pick up her stuff, we both apologized, and she gave me her number.”
Lyla raised a single caramel eyebrow, a skill of hers that he’d always envied. “Oh, yeah? Lemme see.”
He surrendered over his phone and she took it, scrolling through the names. “What’s her name?”
Lyla paused her search to glance up at him. “Marina? As in where yachts dock? Really?”
Max shrugged. “I didn’t name her.”
“No, you just bumped into her. Aha, Marina, found it.” Much to Max’s horror, she hit the ‘call’ button and waited as the phone rang on the other end.
“Lyla! What are you doing? Give me the phone!” He reached out to take it from her, but she twisted out of his reach, her legs on his lap keeping him from standing to retrieve it.
Giving up, he settled for glaring at her, rolling his eyes as she smirked at him as she waited for Marina to answer the phone. They didn’t have to wait long; the ‘Hello?’ at the other end of the line was given within a few short rings.
“Hi! Is this Marina?” Lyla asked, switching the phone over to speaker mode.
“Um, yes,” Marina’s melodic voice sounded from the speaker, filling the room. “May I ask who’s calling?”
“This is Lyla, a friend of Max’s, the adorable guy you met at The Village. Y’know, kinda tall, black hair, dark eyes?”
“Max, right. What about him?”
“Well, he really wants to ask you out, but he’s too shy to do it, so he asked me to instead. What do you say?”
“Sure, I’d love to. Just have him text me the place and the date and I’ll let him know if it works for me.”
Hanging up, Lyla burst out laughing. “I have to be the best match maker ever! You so owe me Starbucks coffee now!”
“Owe you? You just set me up on a non-consensual date!” Max exclaimed, mortified beyond words.
Lyla waved away his words. “Oh, please! Like you wouldn’t have asked her out anyway? You were talking to her when I called, weren’t you? I should’ve known; you sounded like a love-struck teen on the phone.”
He blushed, huffing in indignation. “I did not sound like a love-struck teen. Besides, it wasn’t up to you to decide, Lyla! Maybe I wanted to ask her out and maybe I didn’t. But it was my choice, not yours.”
He didn’t know why he was so worked up over it. It was only a date, after all; one with a ridiculously beautiful girl. He should be grateful to Lyla for setting it up for him but, for some reason, he was only angry.
Lyla frowned slightly. “Relax, Max. I was just trying to help. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
He shrugged it off. “It’s fine.”
“I could always break it off for you,” she offered and he shook his head.
“No. It’s fine, Ly, really.”
She bit her lip, looking him over with poorly veiled concern. She rarely saw him angry or upset and was surprised by his passionate, if not brief, outburst. She’d do anything to remedy the situation, of course, but he seemed not to want her help at the moment.
Nodding reluctantly, she forced her gaze back toward the TV, sneaking glances at him occasionally. The two sat in a tense silence until Heather called them for dinner. Max was uncharacteristically quiet throughout dinner; his usual jokes and sarcastic remarks replaced with silence. Both Lyla and Meredith tried to make up for it with witty banter and complaints about high school and college but it wasn’t the same and soon they fell quiet as well, focusing on the food on their plates.
The sound of the ticking clock and of silverware scraping plates was the only noise in the kitchen, each minute that passed seeming like an eternity. Lyla sat, picking at her food; Meredith texting beneath the table; Heather shooting worrying glances at Max every few seconds, barely touching her food.
Max’s soft sigh made all heads turn in his direction and he felt his cheeks heat. He stood, excusing himself, before heading out the back door, shoving his hands in his pockets. Lyla stood and followed him, falling into step beside him easily. The pair was quiet for a while before he turned to look at her; his expression so serious that she felt her stomach clench apprehensively.
“Ly, I’m not mad at you, you know.”
She released a breath that she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “Really?” She looked at him, vulnerability lurking just beneath her surface.
Lyla wasn’t an open person, it just wasn’t in her nature, but at times, if he looked hard enough, Max could see miniscule cracks in her armor and he loved her all the more for it. Pulling her into a hug, he buried his head in her hair, relaxing at the familiar smell of faint chlorine and vanilla.
“Of course not. I just….I don’t know. I’ve been out of it, lately. I can’t seem to think straight. I can’t stop thinking about…” he trailed off, unwilling to finish that thought.
“Your dad?” She added helpfully and he nodded. “Talk to your mom then, Max. Or do some research on your own. You don’t think he’s dead, right? Then prove it. At least you’d have answers then, even if he is dead.”
He sighed. He knew that she was right, of course he did. But that didn’t help his fear. The fear of the unknown could drive a person to the brink of insanity, but actually knowing the truth could be the thing that sends them over the edge.
The two of them walked until they reached the lake. Instinctively, Max drew closer to it before catching himself and turning back in the direction they’d come. Lyla laid a gentle hand on his shoulder and he felt some of his tension leave him like air deflating from a balloon.
“Can we just go down there? For a little while?” Lyla suggested, nodding towards the water.
Almost immediately following her question, tension flooded back into his body, bringing with it dread and wariness. “Ly….” He began.
She shook head, giving him a small smile. “No, it’s okay if you don’t want to. I just….” She shrugged. “You have to face your fears someday, right? You can’t be afraid of water forever.”
Max’s hands clenched into fists at his side as the familiar feeling of desire washed over him, rendering him speechless. He wasn’t afraid of water; he was afraid of how comfortable he felt in the water and of the gripping desire that took hold of him whenever he was near it.
Water sung to him and it was only his will that kept him from it. But, as the years progressed, he found that his will was weakening and he himself was too tired to repair it.
But he wouldn’t tell Lyla that. No, he decided. Better to let her think him afraid of water than to think that he would ever do what his dad had done. Forcing a smile, he took her hand. “You’re right. Come in with me.”
Lyla blinked in surprise before furrowing her brows in suspicion. He had never, not once in all the years she’d known him, willingly gone into a body of water, big or small. No pools, no lakes, no oceans.
“You’re screwing with me, aren’t you?” She asked, glaring at him, slipping her hand from his grasp so that she could cross her arms over her chest defensively.
“Nope. Can’t you just be happy that I said you’re right and come with me into the lake?” He asked, wanting to drop the subject of his sudden change of heart.
The sun broke through the clouds, encircling her in a halo of pale, golden light. Natural highlights stood out against her tanned skin and she stood, motionless, as she contemplated what he was asking. She blew out a breath in agitation and relented.
“Fine. But we’re continuing this discussion later.”
He sighed, grateful, at least, that they weren’t going to talk about it right then. Before he could utter a word either in agreement or dissent, she dashed past him toward the lake, throwing off articles of clothing as she did. Laughing, he followed her, ignoring the nagging thoughts that warned him what a bad idea this entire thing was.
Lyla ran into the water, disturbing the calming ripples on its surface as well as the fish swimming beneath it as she dove under it before popping back up. She turned to face Max and grinned, the sun catching droplets of water, making them glisten on her skin.
“C’mon, don’t chicken out on me now, Max.” She teased.
Max blushed, respectfully averting his eyes from her form. She was had taken off her bathing suit after her swim meet and was now wearing only her underwear in the lake, as she had stripped prior to getting in. Despite having seen her in numerous bikinis, her underwear somehow seemed more…personal.
When he spoke, he stared at the sand. “I’m not.”
She splashed him, the water cooling his skin where the sun had kissed it. “Don’t tell me my underwear intimidates you. You’ve been in Victoria’s Secret with me before!”
His cheeks burned brighter and he looked up briefly. “Yeah, but you weren’t wearing the stuff then! Only buying it.”
“And your point is….”
“Nothing,” he grumbled sullenly, dropping his gaze back to the shore.
He heard her movement as she walked out of the lake and he glanced up automatically as her arms wound around his neck, their faces inches away from one another. A smile played on her lips, her green eyes sparkling in the sunlight. They were extremely close now and it was all Max could do not to think about the way her body was meshed against his, water dripping off of her like jewels from a necklace.
“If it’s not my underwear that intimidates you, Max, then what is it? Me?” Her voice had taken on a seductive undertone and she peered at him from beneath her lashes.
He swallowed hard, glancing away from her eyes briefly to stare at her cleavage, unable to help himself. He’d barely noticed that the water was lapping at both of their feet now, surrounding him rather than going around him like it should have been.
“I…” He began, but Lyla shook her head, inching closer to him until their noses were just barely touching.
“Do you trust me, Max?” she whispered softly and he nodded.
Smiling brightly, she unhooked her arms from around his neck, placing her hands on his chest lightly. Brushing her lips against his softly, she pushed him into the water, laughing at the comical look of surprise on his face.
Max stood, shaking wet hair out of his face, before breaking into a grin. “Lyla, you are so dead.” Scooping her up, he dashed further out into the water, laughing as her shrieks of surprise filled the air.
“Max!” she squealed, beating her fists against his chest. “Put me down!”
His responding grin was devilish. “If you insist, Lyla.” He released his hold on her, laughing as he stumbled down into the water with her.