The boy and his sister had been playing on the banks of the lake when she went missing. The boy was eleven and his sister five. She’d been put in his charge while their parents were back at the lake house entertaining.
The boy stared out across the water. The world around him seemed as black as the space inside of a drum. Where could she have gone? Surely he’d have heard a splash if his sister had fallen into the lake.
But the boy hadn’t been listening, his attention distracted by something he had found in his father’s closet back home. He had been avoiding his sister more than he’d been playing or keeping an eye out, not wanting her to see this thing he’d found.
“I need a prince!” she’d cried in curtsy.
“Later,” he’d said. “Not now.”
He had concealed his possession behind his back. Slouching against a fallen tree beside the lake, he’d watched her go off disappointed.
What had distracted the boy from his sister was a magazine of women posed in different positions without any clothes. They looked the same as his mother but made him feel different. He’d hidden the magazine in his suitcase, bringing it with him on the vacation; his every spare moment spent studying its pages. When he finally glanced up from the magazine to check on his sister he had no idea how much time had passed. The water in the lake slurped lazy at the shore. Nowhere was there a little girl hopping foot to foot like a ballerina or twirling a stick, pretending to be queen.
The boy rolled the magazine up and stuffed it into the back of his shorts, covering it with his shirt. He called his sister’s name out over the water and into the trees but was gifted no answer.
They had been coming to this lake house for many years and the boy was familiar with the landscape. A two-mile path ran around the water which was surrounded by a sparse forest that spackled the foothills and thickened as it ran up into the hills. The boy longed to go to his parents, but the magazine pressed its reminder in rolled pages against his back. He didn’t want them to know the reason he’d lost track of his little sister. He forced a deep breath and began to run the path.
The boy hadn’t thought about naked women much before finding the magazine and he tried focusing on his sister as he loped around the lake, but the images of breasts and buttocks and hairy stretched vaginas filled his panicked head. Each turn he took was empty, every hillock and creek offering only the hush of grass and water over rocks. He stopped and closed his eyes as he shouted his sister’s name. When he closed his eyes he saw thick white breasts and giant nipples. He saw curled pink tongues sliding over slippery teeth. A fat green frog hopped across the trail in front of him and dove into the water. The boy imagined his sister’s body floating beneath the surface and bile filled his mouth. He began to run again, but faster, his head crowded by visions of stringy underwear tucked between round butt cheeks.
Breath ragged, the boy dropped to the ground in the center of the trail, believing he might die. He’d never run so far. A sudden wind rippled the lake and he watched the water fan out to the shore until the wind stopped and the ripples ran out. He was certain his sister was dead, her body submerged somewhere beneath that cool water. He recalled the bubblegum color of her cheeks and the way her fist clutched the blankets to her face when she slept. At the same time he saw women pulling up on white tank tops to reveal pendulous breasts.
The boy slowed as he finished the loop of the trail. The afternoon sun winked down on the lake, reflecting up into his eyes, and he brought his hand up as a shield only to find he was crying. He returned to the fallen tree where he had started, nauseous and overcome. The boy was angry with his father for having the magazine in his closet and furious with his mother for her breasts and vagina. He longed for his little sister and thought it would be best if he just ran away.
He pulled the magazine from his shorts and the woman on the cover stared up at him with her hands cupping her breasts.
A tree swallow landed on a branch above the boy, looked around, and flew off with the sun on its wings. The bird’s presence stirred up a sadness he couldn’t quite reach and the boy stood and launched the magazine far out into the lake.
Gold fingers of sky stretched between trees. The voices of his parents and their friends grew louder and more delinquent, their decibels spilling through the windows of the house. The boy reached up to cover his ears but in that same instant, heard a gentle punctuation through their clamor; an unalloyed voice. He followed this sound, walking through the trees and shadows until he found her crouched in a fort made of branches she’d leaned against a tall, rotted stump.
His sister said, “I was playing hide and seek.”
The boy thought he might scream in anger, tear the branches off the fort and drag her out by her feet. But, attempting to shout, all he managed was to choke on her name.
Her hair had leaves. Her hands were muddied.
“I thought I’d lost you,” he said.
“I was hiding. You were supposed to say, Ready or not.”
“Ready or not,” the boy said.
She came out of the fort and they walked toward the house as crickets and frogs commenced their night sounds. Off in the hills a wild dog howled.
Elizabeth Heald lives in Portland, Oregon and is a founding member of Full Frontal Writing Collective. She was finalist in the 2013 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge and earned honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Contest. Her work has been featured in tNYpress, Devilfish Review and Jitter Press.