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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.

By Sammie Callahan-Hutchens

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.

Secrets burned to be told, and she tried once to tell her brothers of the lake's changing moods, without giving herself away.

They laughed and knuckled her head until she howled. For them, who never got up much before noon, sunlight played off ordinary lake water. Any fool knew that, and little girls were chock-full of fancy notions.

She wasn't sure what chock-full meant, but it must be bad because they never heeded what she had to say. Not about the lake, not about her thinking Mama wasn't coming back. Not even about Ben.

But they should have listened about Ben.

The plaintive warble of a limpkin heralded a roll of thunder in the distance. A scurry in the underbrush triggered no fear. She guessed the rustling to be a family of brown rabbits. She shifted her eyes to the side, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bunnies, but thunder and bunnies never mixed well on the best of days. She was alone again. That was okay. She was in no shape to enjoy the best thing about bunnies. They didn't know how to run away like the crafty moms who bobbed and weaved and then disappeared. Mothers were like that. There one minute and gone the next.

She didn't want to think about mothers and chased the thought away by concentrating on the bunnies. So cuddly this time of year, she'd corner a little one and hold its fur to her cheek for a moment. Its heart would flutter and she'd release the squirming softness. You were always supposed to let go. Any fool knew that.

But Ben was worse than fool. He didn't let go out of sheer meanness.

She sensed something odd in him a long time ago. Maybe Mama knew it, too. Why she took up with Ben just to leave so soon, she couldn't figure.

He said she'd been making eyes at that truck driver who came through town, and maybe she got a hankering to go with him. She'd come crawling back. Bet your bottom dollar, yes, sirree.

Her brothers didn't say too much. They liked Ben. He brought fancy rifles and lots of things big boys used. No sense telling them he was creepy, and she didn't want to sit in his lap ever again.

She sighed, but the sound came out differently than she expected and the effort made her throat hurt more.

It was her own fault, she supposed. Ben hissed her to be quiet, but how could she? He smelled worse than the pack of hounds after a three-day hunt. She caught the whiff before he was on top of her. Before his whiskers scraped her face, and he touched where it wasn't right.

She gagged at the memory of his breath that pulled the scream from her throat. His hands went around her neck so hard she heard the hard pop more than she felt it. His eyes told her he wasn't aiming to let go, and one more thing -- he'd done this before, and Mama was never coming home.

Fear gripped her insides but she was smart. She played possum and he jumped off her. She held her breath, willing her body to be still. He stood over her, panting, and toed her hip back and forth. Stars danced in her head and she fought a queer floating sensation she feared he could see.

Right when she thought she'd explode and exhale, debris from his turning boots hit her face and twigs snapped as he ran. He slipped once, let out a curse, and crashed through the woods.

The trapped air burst from her lungs. She pulled breath in over and over. Oh man, air is a good thing, a really good thing. She almost laughed. He was gone. She made it. She was alive.

But she couldn't move her legs.

She tried again. Tears ran from the corners of her eyes into her ears. "Mama," she whispered, but that didn't matter anymore.

Don't cry. You'll get all worked up. Think of anything else. Something good could happen yet. Maybe some lost birdwatcher will come through the trees.

If a body can sweat and shiver at the same time, anything's possible.

The sky cracked, closer now, almost on top of her. As if on cue, the rhythm of rain increased and found her under the sycamore. The percussion swelled, drowning every sound of the forest.

She squeezed her eyes against the onslaught of rain and lightning strikes too close for comfort, because her head didn't want to move any more than her legs.

Water pooled in the blanket of leaves beneath her. She moved the fingers of her right hand atop the water. Good, something worked. She played the piano drill she had been practicing on Teacher's upright. She played over and over, mastering that one tricky chord and hearing the melody change in her mind. Perfect. If only Teacher could hear... but that didn't matter anymore and her fingers were getting heavy.

The rain eased and her eyes opened to ominous after-storm mists tumbling over the lake.

On the tree nearest the side of her pink sneaker, rainwater coursed down the intricate maze of bark until it found the sodden ground.

Water always seeks its own level.

Teacher said that once to stop her from fretting about Ben. What water had to do with him, she wasn't sure. It was hard to be sure of anything when you were chock-full of fancy notions.

The woods returned to the soft morning whisper she loved most of all things. Tentative birdsong joined a narrow shaft of sunlight on the branch above her and a crystalline blue peeked through the canopy.

Small raindrops fell from the sycamore leaves and plopped without malice on her cheeks. A singular calmness permeated her being. The leaves beneath her turned to warm velvet, stopping the last shiver. Nothing hurt anymore, not even her throat.

Her heart swelled, taking over the smile her lips couldn't manage. The violent squall was over, and the sun would soon embrace her.

Only the trees were raining now.

shim