Kayla Rutledge

Kayla Rutledge

We spent every summer at that house on the lake, where the mountains hugged the shore and the water was so cold it made your teeth ache, even in July. The lake was a sleepy place, and our whole family slept all summer long, aunts on flat towels in the sun, grandpas in armchairs, fat babies in the shady grass, curls stuck to their heads. The radio was always on, static lullaby. You couldn’t find a corner to yourself.

            That summer I was fourteen, and looking forward to sleeping on through some of the worst ugliness you ever saw. Hair sticking up in five directions, clothes didn’t fit, all elbows. I figured I could sleep on through all the way to beautiful, and avoid my mother while I was at it. My mother was the only person at the lake who never slept, just stuck her nose in a book, or washed the dishes, or kept an eye on all those babies so none fell in. She had strong, clean hands and wore dresses down to her knees. I resented her for all of it. Let her take care of the babies. I was off to something better, adulthood and the rest of it.

I slept all the way through the month of June. Every moment I was awake, there was my mother with her silent, self-assured watching. She offered to braid my hair, go kayaking with me, watch the sunset. She thought it might be a good idea if I reapplied my sunscreen. I rolled my eyes and waited for her to go away. Mom, let me be, can’t you see I’m busy?

It was the second of July when my cousin Maisie woke me up. Maisie was fifteen, half as ugly as me, and always looking for adventure. Everybody was asleep that afternoon, even my mother. Everyone but us, rounding the corner to freedom.

            “Come on, Nancy,” she said, flicking my elbow. “We’re gone.”

            And gone we went. Up the hollow curve of the mountain in my grandpa’s old pick-up truck, country music on the radio, the lake like a sheet of glass beneath the window. Neither of us had a license, but there were no cops in Smith Mountain Lake, just a couple of houses and woods for miles. Two slices of pie at the diner forty minutes away. Slab of apple, slice of cherry. Two cousins in a booth. We kicked our sneakers on the worn wood floor and thought we invented fun. Thought we invented the whole world.

            On the way home, a deer clattered onto the blacktop and off again, a splash of white tail in the tangle of green. Wheels spun with nothing to grip but air, straight into the jawline of an oak. Smack. It ate the metal like it was nothing at all. We stumbled out of the wreckage on fawn legs, the smoke acrid in the air, our phones blinking No Service, to find that all the color had been sucked out of everything.

            Walk, I said to Maisie. Just keep on walking.

            We walked, and kept on walking for hours, until the sky grew dark around us and our outstretched palms were scratched raw from branches. I could feel every square inch of my own skin. Walked the whole way home. The house was lit up like a fire, so bright it hurt my eyes to look at it. Inside, everybody was awake, the aunts and grandpas, the uncles, even the babies, who cried when they saw our faces even though they couldn’t have known who everybody was looking for.

            My mother led me by the hand onto the back porch, and I cried until my face was streaked with sooty tears. Cried until I was uglier than ugly inside and out. When I had wrung myself out with crying, she kissed my forehead and held me to her for a long time.

            “Oh, baby,” she said. “Oh, my baby.”

            I wanted to become the smallest version of myself, to fit again into the palm of her hand, flatten my cheek against her collarbone. But I had left that behind now, somewhere on the road, shed it like fragile skin. Now I was a newly fallen thing, sober and grim. It was different than I thought it would be.

“I’m not your baby,” I said, and the sound of it broke my heart.

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