I was surrounded by water just as I was surrounded by memories. I was born here in the South Carolina Lowcountry, raised first by both my parents, then just my daddy. My hometown, Palmetto Pointe, was a place encircled by river, estuary, marsh and ocean all at once; bodies of water cushioning us like the earth’s pillow.
One silver dawn in early March, I stood on the dock overlooking the river shrouded in early morning mist; the hummocks and spartina blended together in the gray-silver dawn. The oyster shell mounds glowed in the rising sun like pearlized and ragged pieces of earth outlining the river. I’d come earlier than usual for my morning run. The sound of my older sister Deirdre’s crying had come through the bedroom wall of our family home to join my own spinning and twisting thoughts, and sleep was as elusive as the no’seeums—the almost invisible biting bugs—I swatted at during a summer day.
†† I’d been able to hear Deirdre cry through the walls since I was nine years old, since Mama died. I don’t think she ever understood I could hear her; not even now that she was grown and had come home to escape another too lonely night apart from her husband, Bill, from whom she’d separated. Our family, the Larson’s, had learned to hide such emotional displays—they were not for public show like the family portraits or the Waterford Lismore collection. Our feelings were as well hidden as the family silver during the war of “Northern Aggression”.
I extended my arms over my head, leaned down stretching my hamstrings in anticipation of running my usual three miles. A school of menhaden fluttered below the surface of the water like butterflies under silk fabric. The tide was low, yet rushing in from the ocean to cover the mud banks, to give shelter to the crabs scurrying in the morning dawn. The ebb and flow of my memories weren’t nearly as reliable as these tides. On some days I was flooded with remembering and on others, I was as empty as the marsh at extreme low tide. But that morning, like the flotsam that rises to the top of the waves and is flung onto the beach after a storm as strong as my sister’s grief, a very particular day returned to me as the sun broke free from behind a low, flat cloud. My heart opened to an old memory.
I was thirteen years old.
It had been almost four years since Mama—the angelic Margarite Larson—had died. She’d willingly stopped treatment for her cancer and she’d left our family. She’d chosen death over family.
So I’d run away from home. I’d packed my purple suitcase, walked across the front lawn to the Sullivan’s house next door, then stood on the front porch. I set my bag down, knocked on the door with all the assurance a thirteen year old could muster on a blistering August afternoon when sweat was dripping down her forehead. Mrs. Sullivan answered the door, smiled at me. “Hey there, Ms. Kara. How are you this summer day?” Her smile lit up the entire front porch like a million fireflies.
†I patted my suitcase, lifted my chin. “You’re my new family,” I said, nodded for an exclamation point.
Mrs. Sullivan took me in her arms, wrapped me tight and allowed me to believe my proclamation with her pure acceptance. The sharp scent of paint-thinner filled my nose and I knew she’d been working on her oil paintings. She led me into the house, put up her paintbrushes, and cooked me a grilled cheese sandwich dripping in butter. Then she brushed my hair and sang me a song about a bridge over troubled waters.
“Now, honey, tell Mrs. Sullivan why you would want to run away from your beautiful home.”
I turned to her and shook my head. “It’s just terrible. Daddy has changed too much. His face is always hard and stern.” I scrunched my face up. “Like this.”
Mrs. Sullivan laughed, squeezed my cheeks.
“He talks all low and monotone. He doesn’t run through the rain with me anymore, or let me get extra sprinkles on my ice cream cone. He won’t let me wear shoes in the house or get sand in the cuff of my jeans or even bring home a star-fish for my dresser—says they smell. I’ve been thinking that the real Daddy will come back—that he’s not really what everyone calls him, grumpy and moody—but I am assuming that four years is as long as I should wait for the real Daddy to come back. And he hasn’t. So—here I am.”
The kitchen screen door slammed and we both turned to her son, Jack, who came running through the doorway, sand flying out of the cuffs of his pants, shoes on his feet. “Hey, whatcha doing here?” he said to me, threw his baseball cap on the kitchen table. I was stunned when no one yelled at him to put his hat in its proper place.
“I ran away,” I said, hit my palm on the table for emphasis.
“Oh, you did?” He looked at his Mom, blew a large Bazooka bubble. “Must’ve taken you a day or two to run this far.”
Mrs. Sullivan laughed and it felt like a betrayal. I wanted to give a smart answer to Jack Sullivan with his dirty face and bubble gum lips, but tears found their way into my throat, then rose to my nose and finally my eyes. I turned away. I’d known Jack my entire life; our birthdays were three days apart, and he’d never made me cry—except that time he’d thrown me in the river and I’d sliced my feet on the oyster bed.
He lifted his hands in the air. “Oh, I was only joking, Kara. Only joking. You didn’t really run away, did you?”
I nodded. “My mama’s gone and now Daddy is too.”
Jack dropped the baseball glove I hadn’t seen in his left hand—it was so much a part of him that I didn’t even notice it. “What? Your daddy…” he said.
Mrs. Sullivan held up her hand. “No, she just means he’s changed.”
“At least he’s around,” Jack said.
I glanced at Mrs. Sullivan. Pain flew across her face like a shooting star. I flinched as I thought of her husband who came and went as the alcohol allowed.
“He might be around, Jack Sullivan,” I said, “but he’s a different man. My real daddy is gone.” I straightened in my chair.
Jack sat down at the table with his mother and me, took a bite of my sandwich, then punched my shoulder lightly. “You wanna go help me find a conch shell for my summer project? I have to make a musical instrument out of something in nature.”
I jumped up. “Sure.” Then I turned to Mrs. Sullivan. “What time do we need to be getting home for dinner?” In my home, punctuality was a god to honor at all costs and I assumed it was the same here.
Mrs. Sullivan stood, drew me in her embrace again. “Honey, you need to be at your own home by dark.”
“No.” I didn’t yell this or even have a fit, just stated the fact.
She nodded. “This family is a big enough mess without adding kidnapping to its list of charges.”
I shook my head. “Well, I’ll find somewhere else to live then.”
“No, you won’t,” she said, pulled me closer. “Because you can come here whenever you want and because if your Daddy lost one more thing he loved, he’d be destroyed for sure.”
And I knew this was true. Guilt washed over me, and it tasted like the time I’d been slammed down by an unexpected wave, biting my tongue and swallowing more sea water than I’d thought possible.†
I followed Jack Sullivan out the door and into the pre-twilight evening of summer. This was the time of day when I wondered what had happened to the day, where it had gone. Had I used up the sunlight, guzzled the day like one should during the summer? Had I done everything…right?
I caught up to Jack, skipped next to him; he looked at me and stopped.
“What?” I squinted at him against the fading sun, pink and periwinkle in the edges of the clouds.
“Do you really want to run away from home?” he asked.
“Yes, I do,” I said, surer than I’d ever been.
He touched the bottom edges of my dark wavy hair. This was something he’d never done—touched me in a gentle way like I was a fragile shell that would fracture under his hands. He twisted a curl around his finger and I felt it all the way to the inside of my head, through my scalp—a tingling of a sort I hadn’t known existed, like electricity, but deeper and wider and less jolting.
Then he let go, looked at me. “Why would you leave? You have the best family I’ve ever met.”
“Because it’s not the same anymore, at all. Mama’s gone and now it seems Daddy is too. Deirdre is mad all the time and Brian is too busy with his friends to notice me. So, it’s time for me to go.”
I thought Jack would laugh, but he didn’t. He stared straight ahead, looking at me but not. His eyes were gazing almost through me. “Just because your family changes doesn’t mean you can leave them. I wish my dad would change…”
And it was right there, after he touched the edges of my hair, as he spoke of his dad with a color and depth to his eyes I’d never seen before, that I knew the need for his touch. Not the touch I’d felt with him wrestling in the ocean or shoving me off the dock into the river, but a different kind that at thirteen years old I could not define. A kind of touch I didn’t know how to ask for and didn’t know how to give. But I tried.
I held out my left hand; it wavered in the air before I knew what to do with it. Then I reached up and touched his cheek; my palm against his skin, my thumb ran over to his top lip, stopped. He stood still, stiller than the snow-white egrets on the marsh, which looked like statues. Then he reached up and put his hand on top of mine. Fear—the kind that makes your stomach loose like you’re on a dropping plane—overcame me; fear that he’d remove my hand.
But he didn’t; he closed his eyes and let our hands stay there—together. In the next second, he opened his eyes and leaned toward me, dropped his forehead onto mine. Our noses touched, then our lips. It was my first kiss and more gentle and kind than I had expected after watching Spin-the-Bottle at our middle-school parties. It lasted only a moment, a split second of time that could repeat itself over and over if I allowed it, like the waves coming one after the other even if you weren’t watching.†††††††††
Neither one of us said a word; we stood back and stared at each other as if we’d just met, as if we’d just discovered something so new and strange that we didn’t know what to call it.
We turned together and walked toward the sand dunes, over the footbridge covering the sandburs, which dug themselves into your bare feet and stung worse than a bee. When we reached the beach, we sat and watched the sun disappear in a hundred colors and patterns of light below the horizon.
I lay on my back and he sank down next to me. Instinctively, as we’d done a hundred times, we made silent snow angels in the sand, brushing our arms back and forth, allowing our fingertips to graze against each other. We lay like that in silence, knowing the game we were playing: the first one to see a star in the disappearing day won. I focused on the sky…wanting to find it, wanting to wish upon it. Then a small speck rose above me—appearing like it always did, as if it had always been there, but I hadn’t paid enough attention. Usually I hollered when I won this game, but this time I whispered. “There it is.”
Jack touched my elbow. “I see it.”
“Did you see it first?” I whispered.
“Nah. You win. Come on, we best get to dinner or we’ll be grounded for sure.”
And I knew that for the first time, he’d let me win the game, and this was the one fact, beyond the kiss or the brush of his fingertips, that let me know he loved me. Yes, he most definitely loved me. And I loved him.
I stood, and he took my hand inside his and I thought how perfectly it fit, custom-made for me, like one of Daddy’s tailored suits from the seamstress on Magnolia Street. Jack glanced at me with a question on his face. I smiled at him and immersed myself in the new openness I felt below my breastbone; maybe, just maybe this emotion would fill some of the empty space where Mama’s absence ached.
My definition of love did not, then, extend beyond familial devotion, so when I felt the opening, the possibility of another kind of love—my heart stretched as if it had been taking a thirteen year nap, and it was just beginning to fully awaken.
I pondered this feeling for weeks and months afterwards, wondering why it had changed between this boy and me, this boy from next door whom I’d known ever since I could remember. Had I always loved him or did I just miss my mama and want his?
Even now, at twenty-seven years old, I couldn’t answer that question, but thankfully it didn’t matter anymore. Jack was gone and had been for a very long time. I now understood true love, lasting love—not just adolescent angst and want, not the kind of love that would leave me like Mama had. I was comfortable in my world, one I did not need to run away from.†
Excerpted from When Light Breaks © Copyright 2012 by Patti Callahan Henry. Reprinted with permission by Penguin/NAL. All rights reserved.