By Olivia Junghans
I am chasing the rising sun as I run from them.
That golden globe leads me forward as if it is running with me, encouraging me to finish this godforsaken chase and get to Eliane.
I hear them taunting me, calling my name. I am not far from the middle school; I can still turn around. But Mr. Schremp won’t be in his classroom to save me, and I am already on Tangerine Bridge. It isn’t a big bridge, not long anyway. But it is arched high, at least ten feet above the ocean. It might as well be a skyscraper to me. You don’t get many of those in the Keys.
My parent’s B&B isn’t far either, and I’ve done this chase 364 days in a row. Mangrove Inn is my best bet. But I was late getting out of the house this morning and of all mornings—the guests decided to get up early too. 364 days I’ve been the mouse that got away. 365 days was too long for Joe to not get his prey. And Joe always gets what he wants; he probably will for the next few years, until he leaves Tuttle Middle School. Of course, I doubt he will stop there.
My body shakes as I run out of air. It’s humid, and I’m shivering. I’m almost over the steep bridge.
I trip. I fall. I slide. I stop.
Joe is already on top of me when I clear the sand from my eyes. He picks me up. I don’t know why, because he just throws me back down again and says, “Get up faggot.”
I get up. I dust the sand from my knees with shaking, scratched hands. I rub my head where Joe has pulled me from the ground and watch as some of my hair falls out in a brown flurry. I don’t look at Joe’s face. He said to never look at him. So I just look down at his feet. He wears long white socks with sandals coated in golden dog hair. If I didn’t know Joe was an eighth grader, I might have thought he was one of the old tourists asking for directions.
“Where’s your girlfriend, runt?” Joe asks. He pokes me. I stumble backwards with the pressure.
“I need to go meet her at school,” I say. Always answer Joe. If you don’t, it’s a good way to get a fist in your mouth.
“Well, tell you what Jude, how about you stop hanging around her and I’ll leave you alone,” Joe says. He shoves me when I don’t answer. His boys laugh. “How’s that sound? I take Eliane and you have no friends.”
“Who says she is his friend?” says one of the boys. “He’s probably just lying.”
“Yeah, I never see her with you at lunch, Jude. Where does she go?”
“Eliane is real,” I say. She’s been real ever since her mother brought her over to play in our kiddy pool.
“Dude, are you crying?” Joe says.
I shake my head no. I am not crying. I am too scared to cry.
I double over when Joe’s fist plunges into my stomach. I feel the tears fall down my cheeks. I quickly taste the salt in my mouth. Stop crying. Don’t cry in front of them.
“Joe, dude, let’s throw him over the bridge,” One of the boys says.
“Dude, won’t that kill him?” another says.
“Maybe—then he can be with Eliane.”
“Woah, I don’t know…”
I make a startled noise in my throat and begin inching away as Joe and his boys contemplate whether or not I will die. I decide not today and they will never throw me over that bridge. I begin wishing for Eliane will to appear by my side. But I know she is waiting for me at school. Eliane is waiting, and she hates it when I leave her waiting.
I look over at the sun. It is almost above the giant palm trees. It glimmers at me, and I can sense Eliane sitting alone in front of Mr. Schremp’s class. She is waiting, waiting for me. I feel the warmth of the sun; it seeps into my legs. They are no longer numb with fear.
Like a bass wriggling free from its line, I shoot off down the road toward school. I am chasing the sun again, passing the pastel stilt houses, the clueless tandem-bikers, and a girl with a melting Popsicle. I hear Joe and his boys, but I know it will be okay. Eliane always makes things okay.
The moon took its time to get to my house and cloak it with its dark blanket. It does that to me; it makes me wait longer and longer, especially in the summer, when it knows that summer is when Eliane and I can be together most.
I wait by my open window, straining to see any sign of her. Any moment, she will drop the belladonna onto the windowsill and I will climb down the vines so that we can escape into the night. She is my Peter Pan, and I am her Wendy. The old house creaks and groans in the brewing storm winds, making me look with every sound. I hope my parents andthe tourists stay asleep, and I hope Eliane gets here soon. We have a lot to talk about.
My eyes begin to flutter, and more and more they stick like glue. Images of today flash behind my eyes: last day of school, Mom packing my lunch, Joe and his boys taking my lunch, a painful walk to Tuttle Bay Middle, Eliane waiting for me to walk to Mr. Shremp’s class, and then that horrible moment at 9:02 when Mr. Shremp asks us what we’re doing this summer. Eliane rose from her seat and went to the front of the class, only to proceed to tell us that she was moving away. My heart had filled with tears; my heart is still full with tears. I still wonder why she did not tell me first.
Finally there is a rustle of leaves, and a belladonna blossom drops to my windowsill. She is here.
Swift as the raccoon that drives Dad crazy, I climb through my window and down the side of the house, the trumpet shaped flower resting tenderly between my lips. I know by the time I get down she will have already retreated into the mangrove trails for me to find her. And I will find her.
I’m already sticky from the salty Florida air when my feet collide with the hibiscus bush. I pluck one of the orange flowers and run. I always have so much energy in me when I’m going to see Eliane. I keep running until I reach the trails behind the house.
Night is our favorite time to play. It’s the time when all the grownups have gone to bed and the trails to the mangrove trees are not flooded by the tide. Cicadas make my ears go numb with their whirring wings, and I wonder what they’re humming about. A key deer stumbles out of the nearby fern bush, and I wonder what it’s running from. The sky rumbles, and I look up. The clouds are sad and gray, reminding me to quicken my pace. Eliane is waiting.
The fork in the pathway is daunting. Robert Frost would have a fit. I stare, both trails looking exactly the same, and I feel my eyes begin to sting with frustrated tears. It is late. Dad might be up. What if I get lost? But I see Eliane in my mind(reject). She sits in the roots of the mangroves with the crabs, a halo of golden curls around her head, lit by the white moonlight. She is waiting.
I take the trail to the left; Eliane is left handed. The trail is still damp from the high tide, sand and salt splashing against my pajamas pants. I see a familiar giant of a tree. Its draping mangrove roots twirl out and around, inviting me back to our hideaway from elementary years. She sits on a massive root watching, her wonderful blue eyes indigo in the darkness.
“How’d ya find me so fast, Jude?” She says. I can tell she is disappointed.
I say nothing at first and place the orange hibiscus next to her and tuck the belladonna in my t-shirt pocket. There’s a flash of a smile that hides behind her pout.
“I knew you were here the whole time,” I lie. “Besides, I thought we should talk.”
Eliane really pouts this time. I regret bringing up the talking. I don’t really want to talk either.
“Well, you know I’m leaving… so there,” she says and starts to climb to a higher limb.
Her small foot is grabbed by one of the twisting roots, and she slips. My hands fly up and push her weight back onto the tree. We are both scared. “Don’t fall,” I say softly. My hands release from her backside. “Don’t fall.”
But Eliane is my Peter Pan, so she puts her hands on her hips and pouts and says to me, “I don’t fall.”
I envy her ability to not fear. I fear. I fear everything. I especially fear Eliane will be leaving me. Once the summer is over, the boys will never leave me alone. I will be open game, like that key deer.
“Then I’m coming up with you,” I say. I want to cherish my last sunrise with her. “Help me.”
“No,” she says. “Get up here yourself, you big baby. I always help you.”
I look at the girth of the massive tree and sigh. Anything for you, Eliane. I dig my fingernails into the damp bark and bring myself up and over a limb. I am on a lower branch than she; she is elevated above me, as she should be. But I feel separate from her. My hand raises, and I reach for her fingertips, her bitten nails the only imperfection on her. We sit like that, fingertips barely touching, and watch the sun rise above the mangrove trees and gray clouds. We are the sun chasers of Plantation Key.
I wake to my lungs being filled with water. I sit up, choke, spit and heave the salt water. I look around. Somehow I am still on the mangrove tree, and the high tide didn’t carry me away. The rain had also helped fill the mangrove trails, and now I am surrounded by open water. The water rises with the sun, which is at 7:15 am. Breakfast with Granny is at 7:00. I look for Eliane, and she is nowhere. She must have gone back while the tide was lower. A black crab skitters across the back of my hand. I pick it up, it pinches me; I smash it against the tree.
Mom is waiting in the kitchen when I get home. She is baking some banana bread for the guests; I can smell the sweet smell of the over-ripened fruit and musty chocolate being mixed together.
The bright yellow walls mounted with dead fish Dad has caught stare at me with their gaping frightened stares. The look my mother gives me as I walk in implies I should be on that yellow wall with the fish.
“Granny is in the living room waiting,” Mom says. She is whipping the banana bread batter furiously.
I don’t say anything, nod in understanding, and head for my room. My mother’s long red nails latch into my arm, banana goo seeping onto my skin. “Were you with…” she pauses. I can see the distaste as she speaks her name, “Eliane?” Again, I nod. She releases me with look of reproach. “Go clean up,” she whispers. “You’re tracking sand everywhere, and you smell like crab.”
Granny is reading a salon book. She is a hairdresser. She sits in the brown wicker chair; her honey colored hair is pinned up to show off her colorful parrot earrings. She looks like island gift shop royalty. I clear my throat, and she looks up from the page of different hair curlers.
“Jude, my boy, come sit with Granny.” She motions to the little blue ottoman her feet rest on.
I am in my good kakis and favorite yellow polo. My hair is combed, but that doesn’t stop Granny from running her fuchsia nails through it as I sit in front of her. I sink low into that blue ottoman.
“So tell Granny, how is Eliane doing?” She is a big gossiper. That’s part of the hairstyling profession, so I tell her all my troubles. The ladies at the salon are entertained that way. I don’t mind… really.
“Eliane is moving,” I say. Just stating it makes my heart flood even more. “She is doing great though. I saw her last night.”
“Did you tell her that you love her yet?” Granny asks.
I shake my head in a sullen no. “She is moving. I don’t want to make things harder.”
“Maybe. That’s very noble of you Jude, but what if you told her you loved her and she felt the same way? Maybe you would stay in touch longer.”
I think about it. I had never considered this a possibility. Hairdressers must be wise like that. They hear a lot of things, see a lot of things. It makes sense that they are secret therapists. “I’ll tell her then,” I say. “I will tell her tonight. She leaves tomorrow, you know.”
“I know,” Granny says. She then hands me a cold crab cake. “Here, eat this. Made it myself.”
When I meet Eliane tonight, I will tell her I love her. Granny has given me her support and even says to stop by the salon before I go so she can “fix me up.” Cherry’s Salon is ten minutes into town on bike, so when I pedal up to the salon, it is still dusk.
Granny is still doing the last customer’s hair. She looks up from the curling iron as the door jingles the bell. I am blasted with the sharp smell of nail polish, hairspray, and the faint scent of bubblegum. Granny’s shop is a lot like bubblegum. It’s bright and colorful and loud. Jimmy Buffett wails about five o’clock from the fuzzy wall speakers.
“Jude,” she says. She’s smacking on a big wad of lime green bubblegum. “Come here and meet Miss Vivian. She’s staying at your parent’s B and B, ya know.”
Miss Vivian is older than Granny. Her skin looks like a soggy brown paper bag, like the king Mom uses for my lunches, but her snow white hair looks great. “Nice to meet you Miss,” I say. I extend my hand for her to shake.
Miss Vivian gives me a limp fish of a handshake and croaks “Nice to meet you kiddo, didn’t realize you were David and Leanne’s.” The smell of cigarettes and lipstick wafts from her mouth. I crinkle my nose when she looks away and then go take a seat in the salon chair next to them. They continue whatever conversation they are having, but then Miss Vivian stops Granny and says, “Wait, is this the grandson who’s having girl problems?”
“Well he won’t after tonight,” Granny says and gives me a wink. I slump in my chair from embarrassment. I never mind her telling stories about me because I was never at the salon, I realize.
Miss Vivian rests a soggy hand on mine and looks me in the eye. Her eyes are faint and glazed with all the things she’s seen. “Well, I think you shouldn’t tell her.”
Granny gives Miss Vivian a threatening glare, the one that is usually reserved for any of my thick-headedness. I quickly disarm both of them though. “Well, she’s going to be gone, so I don’t think it will really matter whether I tell her or not. At least if I tell her now, I won’t wonder.”
Miss Vivian slaps at Granny when the hot curler touches her ear. “Cher, pay attention!” Granny apologizes but I giggle. I imagine Miss Vivian’s brown paper bag skin crinkling with that heat.
“Well, I think that he should tell her, especially because it will make him happier,” Granny says. “Jude, don’t listen to this twit. She doesn’t know anything about love. She’s been married seven times and still hasn’t figured it out.”
Miss Vivian scowls but leans forward, dragging Granny behind her with the curler. “It’s true,” she says. She splays out her spidery fingers. On seven of them, there are seven different rings. “Why don’t you take one of them to—”
“Eliane,” I offer.
“Eliane,” she says. “What a pretty name. Well why don’t you take one to her? They didn’t work for my ex-husbands; one might work for you.”
This time Granny slaps Miss Vivian. “Don’t fill his head with ideas, fool.”
“I’m not asking him to get married, Cher.” Miss Vivian takes the ring off her pinky finger. It’s delicate and enthrones a lone pearl. It reminds me so much of Eliane and her soul. It is pure and she is delicate. “Take this one. It should fit perfectly on her…well, she isn’t fat is she?”
“No ma’am,” I say. “Not at all.” She hands me the pearl ring; I clasp it tight. “Thank you ma’am.”
Miss Vivian then jumps up, despite Granny’s protests, and heads for the checkout counter, Granny chasing after her with a thick can of hairspray.
“Cher!” Miss Vivian says and swats the can away. “Get this lover boy all fixed up.” Her hip is popped to the side on which one indignant fist rests. Her unfinished curls bob haphazardly around her head like slinkies.
Plantation Key is small. That’s probably why they made it part of the Village. I still remember when Plantation Key was only four thousand people and Eliane became the most important one. We were five. I’ve been in love with Eliane for seven years. Dad says that’s too long.
Night is here, along with its soft breeze. It pushes me to Tangerine Bridge, which floats above the dark ocean below, where the tall light posts stand and hang their necks sleepily, their faces emitting that orange light. It is here the boys see me. My head is down, and my hand lies protectively over my pants pocket.
Don’t see me. I am not here.
There are five of them, Joe has collected more, and they all look the same in their cargo shorts and muscle-tees. They wear white socks to their calves with sandals—a fashion statement I’ve always seen as ridiculous and idiotic, yet I am frightened. Hidden in those socks is a ton of loose change picked up from the younger kids’ pockets—probably some of my lunch money, too. I’ve seen boys beaten senseless with those flailing sock contraptions. Carter Knowles, Joe’s younger brother, even came back with sixteen stitches on his lip. Joe Knowles is a monster.
Don’t hurt me.
My head is down; I’m not paying attention. I hear the blare of the car horn just in time to jump from my bike. I land in the sandy pit in front of the Tangerine Bridge. I am covered in sand, and I feel broken, like the glass that the sand was once a part of.
I hear the boys’ laughter, maniacal, joyful laughter. I am lifted to my feet from the back of my shirt. I choke with the pressure against my throat.
“How’s it going Jude?” Joe says.
I am scared. I feel if I answer, he’ll only hurt me more. This is the closest I’ve ever been to Joe. What do I say? How do I get away? If I run this time, will he catch me? The odds are five to one.
“Joe, let’s throw him over the bridge this time.”
“Hold on,” Joe says. He holds up a hand to hush his boy.
I am contorted, looking up at Joe. He is looking back, his eyes filled with hate. Why does he hate me? I then remember I am looking at him, and Joe hates it when I look at him. I look down at the ground, where I know I will end up in a moment.
“Where is your friend Eliane, Jude? Where did she go?”
Do I answer? Joe shakes me by my collar. Yes.
“Eliane doesn’t like you,” I say. I don’t know why. It is a stupid thing to say, because it makes Joe angry. I think Joe likes Eliane.
“What’d you say, faggot?” Joe’s boys stand taller; they rumble as if they are going to burst—burst with hate on to me. But I am not going to be like Carter Knowles. The sun is going down, and Eliane is waiting, and I love her.
No one knows what to do when my fist connects with Joe’s face. I feel the satisfying snap of his nose. Blood is on my hand as I shake it, splattering my war paint in the air. I am king of Tuttle Bay, and Eliane will be my queen.
I look at Joe—I look at Joe right in his beady blue eyes. He has gotten up, and he stares back at me. I feel fearless in his presence, enough to boldly repeat myself. “I said Eliane doesn’t like you and never will you monstrous piece of—”
I am pummeled to the ground by Joe’s boys.
Their weight crushes me, but I do not feel it. The euphoria of my dominance has made me numb to their fists and bludgeoning socks. I am lifted high, higher, above all their heads. I am the king; I am the sun chaser king of Plantation Key.
And then I am thrown; my body tumbles. My legs are my arms, my arms my legs. The sound of rushing air roars through my head. I smell the salt and fish coming closer. I see Joe, his grinning impish face, and then I impact with the black nothingness below.
I hear them fighting again. My good eye, my right eye, rests on Miss Vivian’s broken ring. The pearl, Eliane’s soul, lies in the middle—a small sun surrounded by its solar system.
I gather courage, overcoming the unavoidable pain in my abdomen. My feet thump onto the ground, and I stand stalk still. I hear other sounds, a soft moan and the creak of a floorboard. It is either the brewing winds again or one of the guests getting up to use the bathroom. It’s most likely Miss Vivian. She’s the oldest and the one who drinks the most of Mom’s Bloody Marys.
My small, boney feet shuffle across my bedroom floor. I sniffle in pain, my back aching from today’s fall. I never thought water could hurt so much, and I’ve been tumbled in the waves countless times, especially on the rough Atlantic side.
Every move I make down the stairs initiates a creak and moan of wood. My hand clasps over my mouth as I take the steps two at a time, moving as slow as an iguana. I am suddenly reminded of a littler Eliane and I, secretly squatting at the base of the stairwell. We are turned towards the living room, watching The Shining from behind the wall after being banned from it by my parents.
The kitchen light bleeds through the archway, along with the sound of my parents’ quarrelling. I balance myself and squat, holding the railing as support. I lean forward and listen.
“But she instigates him!” Mom shouts. “Our little boy has his ass beaten by those punks, his eye is blacker than mussels, and Miss Vivian brings him back to my door, and you don’t think I go crazy?”
“My mother is just trying to help; it’s not her fault our son is a lunatic. I didn’t think he’d actually try to fight either.”
A lunatic. Dad thinks I’m a lunatic? But I suppose love makes us all go mad.
“Don’t say that,” Mom is still shouting. “He is not a lunatic. He just doesn’t understand.”
“Leanne, there is nothing to not understand.” Dad’s voice threatens to explode again. “Eliane is gone, so how in the hell is Jude still going to see her every night?”
Eliane isn’t gone though. She doesn’t move until tomorrow, I want to say.
“I don’t know. It’s something psychological. Maybe he feels guilty over it, so he keeps playing the situation over and over in his head.”
Guilty over what? My mind is inverting, spinning; my legs are dissolving beneath me.
“What if we take him to see her?”
“We don’t want to scare him, David.”
“Well if we don’t do something soon Leanne, your hibiscus bush will be naked.”
“What are they sayin’?” Miss Vivian’s husky voice breaks through my concentration. I tense, and my balance is lost. I slam against the stair railing. I hear Dad’s heavy footfalls walk quickly out. He stands before me, a hulking dark figure in an eerie yellow light. I gather myself and run quickly back up the stairs, nearly knocking down a startled Miss Vivian.
“Dammit,” Dad says. I hear him start following me up the stairs. “Jude, come here. Me and your mother need to talk to you.”
I don’t listen. Eliane never liked Dad. Why should I like him?
“Jude, please,” Mom says. She isn’t shouting anymore. She’s done with that. Now I hear her. She is worried. But why? Why are they worried? And why don’t they like Eliane? Everyone loves Eliane. I love her.
I don’t stop though. I keep running. I run up those stairs and into my bedroom, slamming the door hard behind me. I don’t care if I wake up all of Plantation Key; I am going to see Eliane and tell her I Iove her.
I turn, and I am horrified. Someone has nailed my window shut. Why? Why do they not want me to see her? I have to see Eliane. She will be waiting for me. And Eliane hates waiting for me. My fingernails dig deep under the jagged nails and begin to pry them up. I ignore the pounding on my door, as the pounding of my heart is louder. The last nail flies away and my scarlet fingers yank open the window. I don’t hear Mom and Dad pounding anymore and take my chance.
I am perched on the windowsill, ready to jump when the fleeting thought of the pearl ring rushes into my head. I quickly risk going back to bedside table, grab the broken ring and slide across hardwood floor to the window. I jump through it and land in the sea of ferns and hibiscus bushes. I pull myself out, the branches sucking me backward. But Eliane is waiting.
I yank free. It’s a race against the sun, but I will see her. Eliane will know that I love her.
Her bedroom window is open, the gossamer curtains fluttering in the wind. I run up to them and tug. She doesn’t come. “Eliane.” The thick night air takes the name.
“Eliane,” I say again, louder. And then she is there at the window. She is looking at me, two little oceans reflecting back.
“Help me up,” I say.
She shakes her head vigorously; her golden hair ripples. “I can’t Jude. Even you are too heavy for me.”
“But the window is too high… Do you have a ladder?”
But I must see Eliane.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a few bags of cat food. Mr. Blanchard keeps it there for their outdoor cats. It will have to do.
Cuddles, Crabs, and Conch hunker low as I approach them. They are hissing at me. They usually don’t, but I suppose it is dark and they don’t recognize me. The bags are heavy, but I drag them over one by one. I stack them, one on top of the other, until they give me enough height to climb through Eliane’s window. Cuddles, Crabs, and Conch follow me, surveying every move I make with their precious food.
I hoist myself up, one of the cats latching onto my pajama bottoms. Eliane watches like her cats. She stands back as I climb through the threshold and land in the pristine room. I have forgotten. Eliane is leaving. Most of her life has already been packed away into boxes for the truck to take them to Seattle. I hate Seattle. It looks uncharacteristically large in her room now. No swimsuits strewn across the floor, or shells stacked in dilapidated castles on the pink rug. Everything is vacuumed and Windex-ed.
“Eliane, I have to tell you something,” I say. My mouth is dry. I don’t know if it is from the heat or my nerves. What if she doesn’t love me back? What will happen to us? I can’t live without Eliane.
My eye catches a photo that is perched on her vanity table. Two little kids, their backs facing the camera, their faces to the setting sun. The boy is holding the little girl’s hand; no, she is holding his. Courage tidal-waves through me into my hands.
My hands flow toward Eliane.
The bedroom door bursts open.
My hands ebb away.
A tall man steps through, warped by darkness and moonlight. Eliane and I step back as the shadow man speaks.
“Jude,” He says. Familiarity rings in my ears. This man is Eliane’s father. “I thought I’d find you here. Your parents are looking for you, you know. Called over here. They’re on their way.”
“Mr. Kurt,” I say. Despite this familiarity, I feel alien. Professing my love for Eliane is alien in itself.
Suddenly feeling naked, I look over at Eliane, who stands staring at her father. For once in her life, she doesn’t say anything, and I beg her with pleading eyes to break the silence.
“I can’t,” She mutters in my ear. “He won’t listen to me.”
“Just tell him we’re going to the mangroves,” I say.
Eliane sighs. “Daddy, Jude—”
“No, I will not tell your father I let you go running off again,” Mr. Kurt says. He must be really angry, because he looks like a hurricane. His face is steely, but slightly red, like the calm skies before the storm. He won’t even look at Eliane. “Jude, your parents will be here in a minute. Just come with me.” He reaches forward and a doubtful arm wraps around me, guides me to Eliane’s door. “Mrs. Penny can make you some pancakes.”
I hear Eliane make a disgusted gurgle as she follows us. Mrs. Penny’s cooking always ran us out of the house. The majority of our sleepovers were adjourned at my house, consequently.
Mr. Kurt’s arm is fairly tight, but I feel like I can escape from his light hook. I tense, and as if he suspects my previous thoughts, his hand clasps around my polo collar. I cringe, because it took me forever to iron that collar. I then notice he doesn’t even hold the door open for Eliane. She must have done something really bad this time.
As we walk down the custard-colored hallway, I see pictures of the Blanchard family framed in various shell frames. At the end, there is a picture of Mr. Kurt and Mrs. Penny on their wedding day. The pearl ring in my pocket suddenly feels very large.
Mr. Kurt pulls out my chair, the same chair I would sit in and eat Mrs. Penny’s pancakes. “Take a seat,” I say to Eliane.
Eliane begins to slide into her rightful place beside me when Mr. Kurt cuts in front of her and takes a seat. He seems relaxed now. His sandals are kicked off and his oversized Bahamian t-shirt crumples around him in a comfortable cocoon, as he folds his arms across his puffed up chest. This calmness—I cannot figure out why he acts so rudely to her. She was only helping me get away from my parents. She was being a friend.
“Jude,” Mrs. Penny says from the kitchen. “Your parents are very worried about you.”
“Yes,” I reply, not knowing what else to say.
The small kitchen suddenly lights up as a pair of headlights peer into the rotunda window.
They are here.
“Here you go, sweetie.” Mrs. Penny places a large plate of her deceitfully fluffy pancakes in front of me.
“Thank you,” I say. My stomach clenches as I hear the sound of my father’s jeep doors slam. A warm hand rests on my shoulder. I turn, expecting to see Eliane, but it is Mr. Kurt looking, smiling at me instead. Eliane stands in the corner, looking sad and misplaced.
“Come in, the door’s open,” Mrs. Penny says when my parents knock on the door.
Mom enters first, greeting Mrs. Penny with a sisterly hug. Dad then enters, his head bowing to avoid the top of the doorframe. Mr. Kurt gets up and gives Dad a firm handshake. It’s as if I haven’t run away at all, just another Christmas dinner with the Blanchards and the Botchwits.
I catch Dad’s gaze. I am noticed. It suddenly turns from Christmas to the crucifixion. I’m a dead man.
“Jude, let’s go,” Dad says. His voice resembles something of a bomb. I don’t want to set it off, but I can’t help but think of Eliane. I promised her I would meet her tonight. I had promised myself. And Eliane hates waiting.
“Jude,” Mom says. I realize I haven’t acknowledged my parents. Instead I stare at the corner where Eliane stands, unacknowledged and lonely.
“We have to go,” I say, standing up.
Mom smacks Dad before he can finish.
I detangle myself from the chair and begin to walk away from the adults, when Mr. Kurt stops me. His fisherman’s grip reels me back and sets me in front of them again—I am a dead man.
“Jude needs to hear it,” Dad says.
“No,” Mom says. “You’ll break his heart.”
“I couldn’t bear to see him in such heartache,” Mrs. Penny says. “Leanne, I really don’t mind if he comes over. He’s like a son, you know that.”
“Penny,” Mr. Kurt says. “David is speaking. He’s’s his son, not ours—”
“But she’s our daughter,” Mrs. Penny says. “You never cared did you?” Her blonde hair catches the light of the little chandelier, and all I can see is Eliane.
As the adults bicker back and forth, I inch away from them, towards Eliane, who cowers in the corner. I reach for her hand, but she yanks it away from me. “Don’t,” she says. “Let’s just go.”
“Jude!” Dad is on me quicker than I can run from Joe and his gang. He’s shaking me. My eyes are hitting the roof of my head, he’s shaking so hard. “Eliane is dead, son! She’s dead!”
I hear it. I hear it. But I still see Eliane.
“Stop, David,” Mom is pulling at Dad, trying to make him stop shaking me. “You’re hurting him.”
“You hear me, kid?” Dad says. “Eliane is dead. She died last year.”
I hear it. I hear Mrs. Penny crying. I hear Mom screaming. I hear Mr. Kurt cooing at Mrs. Penny. But I see Eliane. I still see her. “I still see her,” I say into Dad’s face.
My earthquake stops, and Dad pulls back his hand and releases that slingshot hard onto my face. I see blotches of white and black, like when I get tumbled by the hard Atlantic waves. The ringing in my head is matched with Mom shrieking at Dad.
“I see her, she’s alive,” I say.
“No you don’t,” Dad says.
“She’s right there,” I say, pointing to the corner where Eliane rests in, cocooned from the madness. “She’s alive.”
I bring back my hand and bring it across as fast as I can on Dad’s face. If he really thinks sense can literally be knocked into you, I’ll try.
“I said, Eliane is right there,” I say.
Mrs. Penny lets out a whimper and Mr. Kurt holds her tight.
Dad looks as stunned as that key deer caught in the hibiscus bushes.
“Jude,” Mom says. “No one is there.”
I look long and hard at Eliane in the corner. It’s all like some sick joke. How can they not see her? She’s there. I can see her. She is as real as Mrs. Penny’s pancakes are disgusting.
I feel Mom wrap her arms around me, pulling me away from her husband. She kisses the top of my head. “He doesn’t remember. You know he can’t.”
My head is spinning so hard. I can’t think straight through the whirlwind of voices. The tumbling waves that block my vision only make me dizzier. The adults, they keep talking. They keep yelling, and screaming, and acting like I don’t understand. They are children.
I feel a presence next to me and I see Eliane. Her eyes are full with tears. “Go talk to your dad, Jude,” she says. “You need to set things straight with him.”
I don’t want to. Her father has been more than efficient. But Eliane is always right.
I unwrap myself from Mom’s arms and walk over to Dad who is fumingly staring out the window. I look to Eliane who gives me an encouraging nod. “Dad,” I say. “Explain it to me.”
His eyes peel away from the dark window to my own eyes. “We’ve tried, but you forget.” I knew he wasn’t going to be easy. Dad is more stubborn than Granny.
“Try again,” I say.
Mom and Dad usher me towards the table. Everyone sits down, surrounding me, watching me.
“There was an accident,” Mom says. “You two were playing out in those Mangroves…”
“We don’t know the full story because you hit your head,” Mr. Kurt says.
“You mother and I heard screams from the house, so we came running,” Dad says. “All we know is that we found you crying over…over Eliane.”
“They couldn’t save her, honey,” Mrs. Penny says, placing her small tear stained hands on my chilled fingers.
“You suffer from short term memory loss,” Dad says. “It’s been frustrating because you don’t remember anything after you wake up in the morning. You’ve been living the same day for almost ten months now, and every time that damn sun comes up, you’re back at the day before the accident.”
I look over at Eliane who stands back in the corner, alone and sad.
“She’s dead,” Mrs. Penny says. “She’s been dead for some time now.”
“Did I go to her funeral?” I ask.
“Yes,” Mom says.
“Did I cry?”
“Yes,” Mr. Kurt says. “We all did.”
We sit in silence. Nothing moves, not even Eliane.
“I have to go,” I say, breaking the blue silence. “I have to see her. I have to make peace. I think I understand what Granny was saying when she and Miss Vivian gave me that ring. I need to give peace to Eliane. I need to let her go at the place she died.”
“No,” Dad slams a restrained, but clenched fist on the table. “Jude, I can’t let you go out there. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“No, Dad, I have to do this now.” I say. “If I don’t…I’ll forget the next morning.”
“Let him go, David.” Mrs. Penny says. “Let him let her go. It might be for the best. You never know. He might wake up to a different day.”
Mrs. Penny gives me a small smile. “Go, Jude, we’ll drive you there. I think your Granny is right.”
I take in a deep relieved breath, and after a reassuring nod from Mom, I get up and go to Eliane’s corner.
“Eliane,” I say. I reach out my hand. She ignores my gesture and runs for the open door. I follow her, already knowing where she is going.
The mangrove tree waits for us as always. Its long willowy arms invite us back, and we run to them. Eliane perches on her favorite branch at the very top, and I follow. I am sore, but I convince myself it doesn’t matter.
We face each other on the same branch. She is looking at me. She smiles, and I smile back. Inside, I feel like a soda bottle all shook up. I let out a decompressing sigh, my soda’s fizz escaping.
“Eliane,” I say. I then remember the ring and pull it out of my pocket with nervous hands. The pearl that reminds me so much of Eliane slips through my fingers and falls—
But it is not the pearl. It is Eliane.
I am transported. It is suddenly the day before we’ve left, and we are sitting on the high branch together. She says “I’m moving.” I am mad. She didn’t tell me; she told the class before she told me. I was nothing. I was just another classmate.
“Why don’t you like me?” I say. “You’re my best friend.” More than that, I love you.
And then I hear what I must have ignored that day through my anger, my frustration. “Because you were the hardest one to tell, stupid.”
“You’re selfish, Eliane,” I say, shoving her. She shoves me back and I slip, lose my balance. I reach for her hair, her beautiful golden hair, and yank myself up. She screams and punches me and then she is falling. She screams my name, but I don’t do anything. I can’t do anything.
It was Eliane. She slipped, and I watched her fall.
I am pulled back into the present by my gurgling cries. My tears splatter thick on my hands like the summer rains.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I am still crying. I can’t help it. What has happened? Why did she have to leave me like she did? Why did I do nothing to save her?
I feel a cool breeze across my face, and I open my eyes. Eliane has placed her hands on either side of my face. They feel soft, just like I remember them.
“Stop crying,” she says. “There is no reason to be sad.”
I swallow the hard, unforgiving lump in my throat and look into her eyes. “What?” How can she not be mad at me?
“I forgive you,” she says.
I am forgiven? The summer rain stops hitting my hands. Eliane takes her hands away from my face and folds them neatly in the basin of her dress. I pull out the ring and play with it a moment. Jude, you faggot, just tell her.
“Eliane,” I say. I don’t look up. I just focus everything into that little ring. That little ring that is both like the sun and like Eliane. “I love you.”
Nothing. Not a gasp, not a word. I look up, afraid I might see Eliane making the face she makes at her mother’s pancakes. But no, Eliane is smiling at me. Her smile cracks open into a grin as she begins to giggle.
I am hurt. I knew this was a bad idea. I knew Mom was right. I shouldn’t listen to someone who sniffs hairspray all day.
There is another breeze, and I see Eliane’s little hands cup my own; two wedding doves. I look at her eyes again.
“I know,” she says.
I smile. “No you didn’t.” I am still wary. Is she with me or against me on this?
“Yes, I did. I always did. And I love you too. You’re my best friend. We were always supposed to be together, I just knew it. I’m just sorry you had to hold on for so long Jude. It wasn’t fair.”
My smile quickly fades. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”
“I know.” She says. But she smiles again. “Jude, what do you want?”
What do I want? To be with you forever, even though, in some odd way, I know this is the last time I will see you here in this world. I want to hold your hand, and look at the sun rise for a new day. A new day, another day, because for me I know the days will continue to roll by until my skin is soggy and brown like Miss Vivian’s.
“To watch the sun one last time with you,” I say.
She doesn’t say anything. Her soft, dove hands hook onto my arm as she turns to face the sun. I face it with her and we watch it together. It rises, higher and higher above the horizon, until it is on the same level as us. We are the sun chaser king and queen of Plantation Key.
I feel a small prickling on the back of my hand and look down. One of the black crabs has scuttled its way onto my hand. I tense, and it pinches me on my fingers. I do not crush it though. This time, I let the crab pinch me, pinch me as revenge for all its brothers and sisters I have squashed, and I let the pain sink in, and I am grateful. I am grateful that I can feel that pain, because I know that Eliane cannot. When the crab finally realizes it will not get a rise from me, it continues on to the end of the tree limb. We watch the sun together, Eliane, the crab and I.
The day begins to turn orange, pink, and blue. Eliane is my sun. “What do you want?” I ask her. The horizon is a wonderful mix of bright watercolors.
Eliane rests her head gently on my shoulder. “For you to chase the sun.”
I smile at the sun. “Anything for you, Eliane.”
I glance over to see Eliane’s looking at me, and for once she is smiling. I smile back, because I know she doesn’t see what I see. I see the sun casting its heavenly light upon her, her hair glowing with its radiance—an angel. She waves at me, and as soon as I wave back, she begins to dissolve into the golden light.
I climb down from the mangrove tree, my fingers sliding down the smooth bark. I know that on the day I finally catch the sun, I will have caught up with Eliane, and she will be waiting for me at the end.
And Eliane hates waiting.
Olivia Junghans is currently in her second year at Flagler College. Her studies include a major in Graphic Design and a minor in both Business and Advertising. She has been raised in Florida for most of her life and loves its tropical climate; for her, it really gets those creative gears whirring.