By: Christine Chittim
Stretching to grasp the off switch of my bedside lamp, my fingers freeze at the ping from my phone on the nightstand. Below the white numerals, 11:52pm, a text appears from Little Bro. “Deer Lake. Please come get me.” While pulling jacket over my pjs, my toe stubs on the entry table. I squeeze shoulders to ears against the pain and the loud thump. Sending a text at every stoplight fails to raise a response from Mikey, and my car drifts on the turn into the public access park.
I find him on the dark beach. He’s huddled on the sand like a crab in its shell. His school sweatshirt and jeans are drenched and drooping. He’s shaking all over. First, I hug him, then guide him back to the car where I blast the heat on high. We’re halfway home before I get anything else out of him other than a quaking, “Please don’t tell mom and dad.” Murmur by murmur, the last hour comes into focus. It wasn’t the energy drinks and video games at Joey’s he’d been plotting when I left the football stadium.
We don’t have gangs at our school. We have the seniors on the football team, and they have their traditions. Their creative approach to “welcoming” incoming freshmen produces infamous inside jokes for the student body, while the alleged pranksters smile and swagger their way past teachers and rumors. I’m sure those smiles lured my little brother from video games to Deer Lake. He became the guinea pig for their newest invention, a post football game toss-and-desert off the diving rock. This time they’d gone too far. Still shivering and staring, Mikey swears he doesn’t remember making it to the beach. Again, he begs me to cover for him. The only thing that calms him is my assurance that I’ll play the role.
My promise to Mikey keeps me quiet through the weekend. Now it’s 3:15pm on Monday afternoon. The “Our Town” poster tacked outside drama class holds my full attention. Tugging at the plastic loops on the end of my backpack straps, I imagine my name printed beneath the image of a lone ladder spotlighted against an empty stage. My eyes dart to the door handle. No, it’s not turning yet. Hitching my backpack, I feel the books bonk my back. There’s an application to Cornish College of the Arts tucked between them in an orange envelope. I filled it out months ago, but a blank line sits beneath a high school career’s worth of supporting roles, awaiting that elusive lead credit.
The door opens. Mr. Ackerman emerges to post the sacred cast list next to the poster. Tittering classmates cluster. My finger finds my name and slides to the right. Sierra Williams…Emily Webb. That’s it! I’ve pictured those names side by side for weeks, but this time I can touch the letters. Congratulatory thumps on my back match the thud of my heartbeat, and I blink rapidly in response. Before a squeal reaches my mouth, my eyes latch onto the name under mine. Aiden Maxwell…George Gibbs. Football star, senior, Aiden Maxwell.
Classmates continue to clamor, but my heartbeat is as frozen as my eyes on that name. I can’t play opposite him. Flashes of Friday night invade my vision. A black lake. My damp knees grinding into gravely sand beside my little brother. No. I breathe the images away and return to my moment of glory, but it’s no longer mine alone. Aiden is here, and he’s less than ten feet away receiving back slaps and handshakes of his own. He meets my stare and offers a one-sided dimple as he strides in my direction.
“Looks like it’s you and me, Miss Williams!” he proclaims.
I make an about-face turn. My feet grant me distance as each step pounds with my pulse. Before the corner I slice a glance back, tugging at my backpack straps hard. He’s handshaking again but still watching me. He winks, and I step around the corner.
Rehearsals commence on the following afternoon. I pad toward the front entrance of the school auditorium, with my ruffled, highlight-riddled copy of “Our Town” tucked tightly underneath folded arms. Halting before the doors, I employ Mr. Ackerman’s pre-show exercise. Breathe in, count to four, breathe out, count to six.
The grumble of a motorcycle pulling into a parking stall ruins the ritual. A backward glance confirms that it’s Aiden. He’s dismounted the dual-sport and is jogging over with that one-sided grin directed at me. I skitter into the theatre without allowing him to close the distance. Emily and George may share a life on that stage, but Sierra and Aiden must not be friends.
Rehearsals test my skill at switching personas. Waiting in the shadowed wings, I focus fiercely on my entrance cue for the soda shop. Aiden steps up beside me. His elbow brushes mine and I shuffle to make space. Only once we enter the light onstage does Emily smile, banter, and tease.
After George has proposed over strawberry phosphates, we walk side by side off the stage and I go straight to my dressing room. Mr. Ackerman makes us run the wedding scene three times in a row. Emily should be glowing, but every time I meet Aiden’s eyes at the altar, I must remember the dark water of Deer Lake.
Compliments of cast-mates, once warming, turn brittle in my ears as opening night approaches. I catch Aiden studying me instead of his script in between scenes. One brown curl insists on hanging over his eyebrow. This would be easier if he weren’t so cute. Stopping Emily’s smile, I cross one leg over the other to push down the insistent flutter gathering in my stomach.
A review comes out in the school paper after opening weekend. Amid praise for authentic costumes and ingenious stage design, I am only mentioned once. “Seniors Sierra Williams and Aiden Maxwell, although delivering energetic performances, were not quite convincing in the role of the devoted couple, Emily Webb and George Gibbs.”
At pickup rehearsal, Mr. Ackerman has us running the soda shop scene for the fourth time. My white-booted feet threaten to slip from their prim perch on the rung of my barstool. With head tilted, I stir the straw of my imaginary strawberry phosphate while asking George if he’s really going away to college. His pause is longer than usual, and I take a slurp to fill space.
I fight a twitch under his stare. “This isn’t working.” That’s not his line. I stir faster and scan the auditorium for Mr. Ackerman. No voice scolds the interruption.
Aiden spins his stool to face mine instead of the counter. “What’s your problem, Sierra?”
My words seep out low. “Let’s just start the scene over.”
“This is ridiculous! You won’t even look at me.”
I spin so we’re face to face, “Are you kidding me? You’re lucky we’re not at a funeral!”
“What are you talking about? You should be thanking me!”
“Ha. For what?” My voice is hard.
“Sierra,” he says quietly, “I pulled Mikey from the lake that night.”
“You…you?” My brain is stammering.
I’m still staring at him, but instead I see the passenger door of my car in the murk of the parking lot. My sleeve is soaked under Mikey’s quivering shoulder. He mumbles about being pushed off the rock and waking on the beach. “Please don’t tell mom and dad.” But as I reach for the car door handle, a new sound penetrates. It’s the distinct shred and roar of a motorcycle spinning out on gravel.
I blink at Aiden. “They took it too far that night,” he says. “I couldn’t stop them, but I tried to make it right.” His dimple is making a comeback. “A ‘thank you’ would be nice.”
Remembering every snub brings on a blush. Aiden’s face is suddenly the last place I can bear to look. I watch his shoes step around the stool and his upward palm appears in front of me. “Can we try this again?” he whispers.
I drag my eyes up. His cocked head offers me a second chance I don’t deserve. Taking a breath, I place my hand in his as he helps me up on my stool. Once he’s seated beside me, I risk a sideways glance. He catches it and holds the gaze. This time, the smile isn’t Emily’s.