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"Pink Sneakers and Sycamores": Second Place, Family Circle Fiction Contest 2012

"Pink Sneakers and Sycamores," by Sammie Callahan-Hutchens, won second place in Family Circle's 2012 Fiction Contest.

She knew two certainties. Shivering came in winter and sweating came in summer, but here she lay under the canopy of forest, doing both at once. If she had her say of a warm blanket or a tumbler of ice water, it would be a hard choice.

The clouds answered for her. Tired of their heavy load, they dropped a soft but steady patter of rain on the surface of the inlet below her.

Unable to see from the upper bank, she pictured the droplets hitting the inky black water. It was always that color at dawn, her secret time with the lake.

She welcomed the rain and begged it to come closer. If she opened her mouth wide, the raindrops might soothe her burning throat. But she knew in the asking, it was only a hope. The shifting lake wind bullied a soft rain where it would, and it was unlikely to find her under the giant sycamore leaves.

She tried to chase her next thought away. No sense getting all worked up like grandma used to say. But the more she tried not to think about it, the stronger it got. Panic rose in her chest until she admitted the unthinkable: No one would find her because no one was looking.

She learned weeks ago, as soon as she could reach the top lock, how to nudge her paint-chipped window open without a sound. Scurrying over the warped sill, she found a world too exciting to share. Not even with a best friend, if she had one.

Away from the musty cabin, the air was airier, the sounds soundier. Except for the crickets, which hushed if you just thought about moving, and each hollowed log held some kind of critter to coax into friendship.

She played Indian princess and hunted fairies, but it was the lake that drew her. Called to her.

Its chatter and tricks of color and movement dazzled her senses.

She saved it for last each morning, until the rising sun threatened to wake the hounds on the porch.

Her brothers' snoring topped most noises, but foraging squirrels set off a round of barking that scared her anyway. She ran with the rays at her back, beating the sun through her window. They never suspected, all those mornings, that she wasn't in bed.