Shanaya was a lively young girl. Not yet adequately mature for her age of 11, but nevertheless clever, witty and able to outsmart even the most attentive adults around her whenever they tried to force something on her she didn’t exactly approve of. The things she enjoyed most just happened to be those, seemingly everybody did not want her to enjoy. Hiking (without shoes or proper gear of course), swimming (right to the middle of the lake where her brown locks poking out of the water looked more like a strange reflection of the evening sun), and wrestling (sadly only ever with the mean boys her age as the girls seldomly were willing to dirty their good Sunday shoes or pretty bows) were just some of Shanaya’s most cherished activities.
Though, having tea parties with her favorite stuffed animal, a colorful caterpillar too big to even fit anywhere else than on her bed, would still always rank Number one if she had to pick. Her mother was the only one who ever seemed to take interest in whatever Shanaya was about to do or say, much in contrast to her large extended family. This can be taken quite literally as most of her Uncles, male Cousins, her Grandfather alike her Great-Grandfather and one of her better situated aunts, were more than well-fed most days and looked accordingly.
Little Shanaya and her Mother were mostly left to their own devices, just like they preferred. Playing board games, helping each other out with the dishes, painting the tall trees surrounding the house, even occasionally baking up some delightful French pastry dishes. “This is what we do, we only really have each other. You can always rely on me just like I can always count on you.” was what she said whenever her daughter tried to thank her for anything she has done, and would surely continue to do for many years to come.
At the end of an average Thursday on a chilly early September evening as was today, her mother always prepared Shanaya’s favorite chicken and rice soup. The gentle wind right outside the big kitchen window, the smell of lake water in the air from earlier when the sun shone happily over the lake and Shanaya, a huge bowl full of steaming broth and soft vegetables - as if it was meant to be enjoyed together. She sat down on the narrow cushion of the Window Seat struggling not to let anything spill onto her lap, intently watching the breeze outside sweep the first fallen leaves off the ground and lay them down again just as gently. There was nothing to make her feel more at ease than momma’s soup and some peaceful quiet after a day outside. Which was something she needed right about now, as just half an hour past dinner she was forced to contemplate her shoes, socks, dress, jewelry and hairstyle of choice for next day’s event.
Swaying along the sidewalk, out of the car and down a dry hot roadside with her Mother right behind her, she could already hear her ugly Uncles roaring laughter and the clanking of white wine glasses. She knew the difference, between what a narrow glass for white wine and a broad glass for red wine sounded like when colliding cheerfully. Apparently, being a girl had lots to do with drink, food and decorations even if you weren’t interested in any of it.
Her female relatives especially seemed to base a lot of their, not always nice, judgement of Shanaya on whether or not she was able to lay down cutlery in the right order, correctly fill scotch, whiskey and bourbon into their respective glasses and similar meaningless knowledge. Just like she anticipated, it took less than twenty minutes past her arrival for someone to grab, and drag her off the swings and into the living room. Here she had to help out with the last bit of cleaning and dusting before the others were invited inside to begin the celebratory afternoon feast. A handful of times she was able to get away by pretending she left something of great importance in the car or faked an allergy to whatever she was supposed to help prepare. A couple hours went by and Shanaya grew tired, or rather exhausted, most of her tricks only reruns after years of pulling them of. While her Cousin was celebrating his fourteenth birthday outside by playing games, she was alternatively stuck with her hands in dirty dishwater or running around restocking plates and filling glasses.
At the end of every one of these events, and this one was no different, the others said their goodbyes to her and her Mother by exchanging wet cheek kisses and distant hugs. All of it topped by one person who just had to grab little Shanaya and tell her what a stunning young woman she was growing into. Today, it was her Grandfather. The next time they would all see each other again was only two and a half weeks later, this time in Shanaya’s home.
Only now they were celebrating her Mother’s Promotion at the law firm and not any of the kids’ birthday, so most of them were left at home with the babysitter. Luckily for the girl she could talk her momma into convincing her Aunt to bring her favorite cousin Eleanor along. She was her favorite mainly because, despite her shy demeanor, Shanaya knew Eleanor to be more mischievous and wild hearted than even herself. Less people at a party, especially all those people being either teenagers or adults, meant less work. Which meant the two girls would only have to help out with plating at the beginning and the dishes at the end, and after having eaten the minimum of an appropriate amount they had at least a couple hours to toll around in the garden.
Right when they were away from the adults inside, free to behave like children again, Shanaya noticed a change about Eleanor. Her posture, her graciousness, the way she carried herself and spoke so softly you would think she had just screamed herself hoarse, all things that had to have been new acquisitions. Otherwise, she would have instantly taken note of them the last time they met. Passing the time together now suddenly was different than all those times before, for both of the girls equally, though Shanaya let it show on her face a lot more the way she felt cast out and left behind by her former closest friend.
For quite a bit they were just sitting around, aimlessly kicking a shimmering rock from the lake between them, when Shanaya had an idea. They could go for a swim. It was right in the middle of September so the water would be freezing but nothing you couldn’t get used to in a few minutes. Eleanor wasn’t exactly keen on deep diving into what was to her, as she vividly described it, a filthy hole in the ground filled to the brim with even filthier water and probably a dozen different filthy animals inside. Regardless, she let herself be persuaded to take off her ivory-colored ankle length dress and matching shoes. It was reserved for special occasions, now bathing in a mixture of mud and rainwater certainly wasn’t that.
After both girls took their fancy dresses off, they went right to the edge of the shore, observing how the water moved just so slightly, how it looked either green or royal blue depending on how you angled your eyes. You could see small fish under the surface, a bunch at a time hastily swimming in one direction, as if they were aware of some danger no one other was able to perceive. Otherwise, everything was still in a way it hasn’t been in a long time. For several minutes, perhaps even half an hour, they just stood there covered in goosebumps owed to the crisp autumn air. It was Shanaya who made the first move. Clenching her clammy hands into fists a few times, hoping Eleanor wasn’t aware of how uncomfortable she began to feel, else she would back out and leave her standing alone at the shore like a dog abandoned.
One step forward, then the second one. Another one and another one and another one. Already waist-deep in, it wasn’t supposed to feel like this. She was supposed to close her eyes and fly smoothly over mountains and sees, softly sinking down to touch the moss and let her fingers reach out to the fish. Several minutes in the water and she still felt uncomfortable instead of warm and full, not even noticing until just now that she was violently shivering, and has been from the second she first put her right foot down under the clear surface.
Her cousin was still behind her with not even her big toe grazing the water yet. Instead, Eleanor tried to get a look inside through the big kitchen window without moving from the spot, twisting her whole upper body away from the body of water right in front of her. A big tree and the knoll they came down earlier obstructing her view, so neither could Eleanor see inside what the adults were doing, nor could they see outside and tell them to put their clothes back on and come inside where it was warm and safe. Shanaya didn’t want to back pedal from her original plan just because of an upsetting feeling in her stomach, so she shook it off and made her way back to the shore in her cousin’s direction step by step. She grabbed Eleanors arm maybe a bit firmer than necessary to get her attention. Startled by the sudden touch Eleanor wanted to protest, saying how they should go back inside and what they were doing wasn’t proper behavior for a young woman.
Those last couple of words were enough to convince Shanaya that they absolutely had to go swimming right now, with the added motivation of helping Eleanor find her old and less proper self again. Shanaya kept on pulling on Eleanors wrist until she obliged and followed her into the water, only letting her go when they were under to just about their thighs. Once again both girls started shaking, the further they went into the water the less apparent their shivers became. When they reached the point where neither of them could stand with their head comfortably above water anymore, which was not far in considering eleven-year-old girls aren’t very tall on average, the air around them almost became warmer. Eleanor tried and failed to reach with her feet down to the ground while keeping her nostrils just above the surface, effectively filling her nose with the reeking lake water, making her gag and laugh at the same time. Shanaya, feeling as if they had just reconnected after months of being apart, copied her and swallowed at least just as much of it, if not more.
Even by herself Shanaya could easily spend three hours swimming, diving and most of all exploring the lake and all that is down below. Now with her Cousin next to her she was sure they could stay here until the sun set, make it a game who could later on dodge their parents better when they would try to force them inside and get cleaned up in a hot bath. The time went by in the blink of an eye and before they realized the sun was starting to tint everything a soothing dark orange color.
For just a few seconds Shanaya wanted to close her eyes and absorb what was all around her in this moment. There were birds chirping far away, a soft rustling of the leaves could be heard if you kept still to listen very closely, and something else. It sounded faintly like waves crashing on strong boulders before creeping onto the shore, farther and farther intruding on the calm land they were about to devour. When she opened her eyes again she had to shield them against the bright orange coming directly onto her, so low the sun was sitting already. From afar she heard someone crying out. The voice didn’t fit with her momma’s when she would, displeased but still lovingly, cry out for her to “get back here and better do it before I send a search party out there!“. Instead, it was aggravated and angsty. Accompanied by a fully clothed woman rushing towards the water. She curiously let her gaze wander over the whole surface, trying to find out what could possibly disturb a grown level headed woman like that. The water surrounding her was perfectly smooth, resembling a still painting more than real water. The woman was now taking her first haste steps into the wet. The girl couldn’t really see much with the sun blinding her at every angle as if on purpose. She tried holding up only one hand to shield her eyes, but then had to raise the other one out of water as well after she still couln’t see anything clearly. Though it looked seemingly peaceful out here at this hour, something seemed off. It was a mere funny feeling in her belly, and yet she didn’t feel she should shake it off. Her attention swinging back and forth between the sun and the woman in the water, it took Shanaya a bit to notice she hadn’t seen Eleanor anywhere.
Dread grew from deep inside her bones out to the prickly feeling on her skin. She felt her stomach cramping up, so sick so suddenly she almost began wretching, struggling to keep above water. The woman from the shore now had swum almost halfway across the way towards her. Frozen in place Shanaya was trying to see something, anything in the deep blue surrounding her. By now she was thrashing around aimlessly. In desperate search of any sign that Eleanor was just playing a trick on her. Waiting for her Cousin to suddenly grab her leg and pull her underwater, creating a new memory they could dearly just between the two of them. As her eyes wandered further away the last shiny bit of hope she clung onto was dulled. A few feet away, there was something disrupting the shimmer of orange on the water. Before she could muster up enough courage to investigate what she already knew she was about to find there, the woman from the shore had made her way up to them.
Shanaya couldn’t tell which streaks on her face were freshwater from the lake and which were salty. She watched as the woman reached out to what was patiently waiting to be grabbed, wailing. Clutching a lifeless body to her chest, cradling it like she was trying to sooth a toothing infant. The woman herself almost going under while holding onto what once was her baby. Up until this moment everything happened in slow motion. So slow, she could barely recognize any movement around her or focus on what was happening in front of her. She was stuck in here forever, a picture not moving at all and replaying over and over before her at the same time. Only when she heard sirens in the distance everything sped up and she was real again.
Witnessing everything from a distance, Shanaya couldn’t bear to take even one step further onto land, standing right next to where her Cousin stood mere hours ago. There was no footprint to be seen, no other trace Eleanor left behind either. Who was to say she had even been here at any point. The sound of agony and anger filled her ears, reminding her that Eleanor was very much here not too long ago, that Eleanor will never return to this lake with her. The next hours went by in a haze. From the moment those women packed up their bags and zipped a big black bag shut over the body inside it the air turned dry and sticky, pure carbon dioxide filling every crack.
Shanaya was only brought back to reality as she endured a rough slap across her face, leaving her cheek red and pulsating. It was the first thing Shanaya could feel since she stepped out of the water an hour ago. She tumbled to the ground not even trying to keep on her feet. Right as her Uncle was about to draw back for what could have only been an even more violent outburst, her Aunt stopped him, pleading for him to hold his wife tight, instead of letting out his anger on a child. From then on nobody wanted to look at Shanaya anymore, much less hold her. Even her own Mother refusing to lay a loving hand on her back. The only time her relatives still wanted to acknowledge her existence, was when blaming everything that had happened on it.
“You know you failed at raising your daughter, she is the reason our daughter is dead”. Such sentences were what she usually heard when she decided to sneak around on the stairs to listen to her whole family talk and fight and talk again in the livingroom.
Not long after the last fight, which she was explicitly forbidden from listening in on as had her Mother empathized when she locked Shanaya’s bedroom door, she found her Mother packing in the kitchen. Normally she was humming along to a song or whistling. Today she was silent in a way before unbeknownst to her daughter. Now even though “Stand by me” was barely audibly playing in the background not a note left her Mother’s lips. Before Shanaya could even open her mouth to ask why she was packing up, her Mother started explaining. Talking about how “you know we cannot possibly stay here after what you have done”; “you should be grateful nothing worse than relocation is happening to you”. Tears started welling up in her, but she turned away before her Mother could see, sure that it would only lead to more sharp words piercing her in places a Mother should only ever protect.
Not even two weekends had fully passed when Shanaya had to help load up the truck with everything they owned. Nobody would tell her where they were going, what would happen to her friends at school and if their new house had a garden as wonderful as this one, not even if they were moving into a house at all. She tried her best to be strong, fighting back the tears whenever she started feeling that tingly feeling behind her eyes and in her cheeks. Picking up one box after another, she was trying not to worry about when the only person who was left to love her would hold her again. She opened a few of the lighter carboard boxes titled ‘S. Bedroom’ until she found what she was looking for. The caterpillar had gotten a bit smushed but it still felt soft in her arms and on her cheek, leaving the smell of Home in Shanaya’s nose.
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