In Dark Ice

Laurie Seidler

Bean was in the tree when Michael got there, face hidden behind a curtain of hair. Her body was taut in a way he'd seen before and the arc of her shoulders made his stomach ache. She was kicking her legs hard back and forth, scything the air. He climbed the ladder of boards nailed to the trunk and sat beside her on the branch. The wind parted the strands of willow and a brilliant patch of lake appeared then died like a spark. He could have pulled back the hair across her face like the wind but he kept still.

"Fucker," he said. It was the worst word he knew. It made him feel stronger in the way anger had of making his bones feel heavy.

Bean nodded.

"Let me see," he said. She shook her head. He glimpsed the dark rim of bruised skin through the swaying hair and looked away. His stomach rolled.

Bean rubbed her cheek with the back of a hand.

"When I'm older," Michael said and fell silent. The wind rifled through the dangling leaves and the pale strings danced like a wide grass skirt.

"Tell me again," Bean said in a thin high voice.

He watched his feet swing through space. "We'll have a house on the hill and we'll each have our own rooms. And we won't let in anyone we don't like." She was staring through the wall of hair and swaying branches. "I'll have a hammock for a bed and a stage in the living room and I'll put on shows for you. You'll have a dog," he said. Bean liked dogs. They made him nervous with their lolling tongues and unpredictable teeth.

"Two," she said. "So they won't be lonely."

"Two dogs," he said gamely. The thought made him faintly lightheaded. "A horse if you like."

"An animal hospital," she said. "People could bring their sick animals and the wild ones they find hurt on the road." She tucked her hair behind her ear.

He nodded. "One side could be an animal hospital and one side could be just our house." It would be clean and quiet with wide windows. "You'll see the lake from every room and in the winter we'll hear the ice groan from our beds and in the morning we'll pack a lunch and skate all day."

"Good," Bean said. When it was cold and windless the lake froze clear and you could see fish suspended in the dark ice. Trapped. They dug them out with their skate blades and tried to bring them to life.

He saw that her shoulders were lower and that she was looser in her skin. "We could swim. It's not too late," he said When the sun went down the sunfish came out of their hiding places and nipped at their legs. They left tiny stinging welts, fish kisses his mother called them.

She nodded. He edged off the branch and climbed down the ladder. He picked up the bag she'd left leaning against the trunk. It was heavy and he tried to picture what she had packed. Clothes, her pens and a pad. A book maybe. The photo of her mother that she kept under her mattress so her dad wouldn't throw it away. Some food. He looked up at her perched on the branch.

"You're not going to jump," he said. "You're crazy."

"I'm not," she said. "Not crazy" she meant. She always jumped.

Her back and shoulders straightened. He held his breath as she pushed off and seemed for a moment to hang in the air, hair splayed in a halo around her face and arms outstretched. She landed in a crouch and came up with handfuls of dirt and grass.

"That was a good one," she said, flushed.

He shouldn't encourage her, he thought. But the bruise pooled under her eye and across her cheek like a tired mask. "Ladies and gentlemen, the one, the only Amazing Flying Bean," he called through a megaphone of his folded hands.

She smiled and took the backpack from him. They crossed the narrow rise up to the road and walked along its gravel edge toward the beach.

"You can sleep over," he said. She was dragging her feet, kicking up puffs of dust. She nodded.

On the salmon-colored strip of sand, he pulled off his shirt and folded it carefully. She stepped out of her shorts and dropped them next to her bag. The sun was low and the water looked sluggish like syrup.

Bean ran and dove under, a glowing shape cutting through the water like the perch you could hook in the deep shady pockets around the point. She rose in a funnel of bubbles and swam to the boat dock. She climbed out and stood with her toes over the edge, arms wrapped around her narrow chest.

He was in up to his knees. If he looked down he could see the pebbly bottom and keep from stubbing his toe, but he looked toward Bean, balancing on the wooden dock, watching him with her dark eyes. He eased himself into the water and swam with his head out of the water, his eyes fastened on her the way a sailor takes his course from a point on the horizon.

He pulled himself onto the dock and they sat next to each other, wet sides pressed together. The barrels beneath the wooden dock knocked against one another and chimed.

"I don't want to go back," she said. Her chest and arms were a landscape of goose bumps and her lips were thin blue lines.

"I know."

"It's not fair."

"I know."

She was crying, the tears hardly visible on her wet skin. He lay his thin arm across her back.

The dock rolled and the barrels sounded. The shadows lengthened as the sun slipped under the crest of the mountains ringing the lake. The green water darkened and, not far from their dangling feet, a sunfish broke through the glossy surface and spun in the cooling air.

Laurie Seidler

. . . was a reporter and editor for many years in New York and Sydney. Her nonfiction has appeared in numerous newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal. An agent called her unpublished first novel "absolutely beautiful" but "too spare" so she started writing short stories where "spare" is good. "In Dark Ice" is her first published work of fiction. She lives in San Jose with her husband and son.