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The Neighbor

Makiia Lucier

Beatrice would never have met him if she had not fallen into the lake. She understood that, later, with a clarity that came only with time, their encounter spun over and over in her mind.

But she had fallen in. One moment kneeling at the edge of the pier, her attention caught by the strange silver vines floating just beneath the surface, like octopus tentacles, the next losing her balance and toppling head first into Goose Lake.

The temperature hovered around 90 degrees, steamy enough that even her shorts and red Go Bulldogs! T-shirt had felt like too many layers of clothing. Still, the water was an unpleasant shock: ice chest cold and murky. Through the tangle of vines, a red flip-flop cartwheeled beyond reach. She was mortified – Had anyone seen her? – but she wasn’t frightened. Not at first. She was a strong swimmer, on her high school team. The panic came when she tried to break through to the surface and found she couldn’t.

It was the vines. Worming their way around her legs, trapping her beneath the surface. She yanked, but for every strand she broke off, another curled around her arms and waist and neck. A terrible pressure built inside her lungs. Just as she opened her mouth to take in that first rush of lake water, she felt her arms gripped and she was flying … through clean, open air before landing hard on her knees.

“Hey.” A boy crouched before her on the pier, looking as terrified as she felt. “Hey now. You’re all right. No harm don  – ”

“Get it off me!” she cried. She was still pulling, because the vines had come with her, silver ropes looped around her neck and ankles like chains.

“Lift your arms. I have them.”

She did as she was told, arms held up at her sides like she was balancing on a tightrope. He worked fast and quiet. The only sounds came from branches being tugged away and her own hitched breathing returning to normal. All around them, the air smelled of honeysuckle and lilac and freshly cut grass.

He was about her age, blonde hair slicked back, and dressed for church, or something like that. The sleeves of his white dress shirt were soaked and his trousers were held up with suspenders. Her grandfather wore suspenders sometimes. And old Mr. Balfe, who worked at the post office back home. No one else that she knew, until now.

When he was done, a heap of silver lay beside them. His gaze met hers, brown-eyed and somber. “Better?”

“Yes.” She dropped her arms. Her clothing stuck to her. Water dripped from her hair. And she was barefoot, both flip-flops lost to the deep. But she was above water and not beneath it. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

She glanced at the pile of vines and just as quickly looked away. “What kind of seaweed is that?”

“It’s not seaweed, exactly” He brushed the heap aside. It fell into the water with a splash. “We call them strangler vines around here.”

Silence fell as his words sunk in. Strangler vines. Goose Lake was small as far as lakes went, edged with towering pines and homes in all shapes and sizes, from gingerbread cottages to giant Victorians painted like Easter eggs. But there wasn’t another soul in sight. No one barbecuing, not a single boat in use. If he hadn’t come walking by…

He must have read her thoughts, because he said, quietly, “Don’t think about it. You’re here now. In one piece.”

He was nice, especially since she’d interrupted his meal. A fishing pole was abandoned nearby, beside a half-eaten sandwich. “Is that why no one’s in the water? Because of the vines?”

He nodded. “Joe Wallins lived over there.” He pointed a few houses down, where red siding could be seen through the trees. “His father studied plants at the university. He brought the vines back from India or Japan. I forget which.”

“He put them in the lake?” she said, confused.

“He says he didn’t. But they got in somehow and took right over. The family had to move away.”

She forced herself to look at the water. “Can’t someone get them out?”

He shrugged. “We’ve tried. They grow fast.” He stood and offered his hand; when she took it, he pulled her to her feet. She was surprised at how steady she felt. He continued, “Most of the locals swim over at Griffin’s Pond. It’s not as big, but it’s safer.”

Goose Lake. Griffin’s Pond. She didn’t think she would be swimming anywhere for the near future, but she said only, “OK.”

He shoved both hands into his pockets. “Are you visiting someone?”

“My granddad.” She pointed to the blue cottage directly across the lake. She could just make out her grandfather’s outline, slightly stooped, in an upstairs dormer window. Which reminded her. It was lunch time. She needed to get back. “I just got here. He’s probably wondering where I am.”

He was watching her house with a small frown. “Your granddad’s Nathaniel Elliot?”

“Yes. I’m Beatrice.” She picked up his sandwich – egg salad – dusted off the bits of dirt, and offered it to him. “Sorry.”

His gaze swung back to her and the sad-looking sandwich. He smiled. “It’s still good,” he said, taking the sandwich. “I’m Colin. I’m just here. We’re neighbors.”

His house was beautiful, a yellow Victorian with black shutters and a wide, wraparound porch. From the pier, steps led up to the house, past a sloped lawn covered in ivy and bordered by orange rosebushes.

“It’s really pretty.”

He smiled again, then glanced at her bare feet. “You’ll be all right getting home?”

“I’m fine.” She hesitated, then said, “Colin.”

She had only meant to thank him again, or to say something like, Maybe I’ll see you around. The words tumbled out before she could stop them. “You saved my life.”

She should have felt like an idiot. But he didn’t laugh at her. He didn’t even smile. Something flickered in his eyes, there and gone in an instant. “I’m glad I was nearby,” he said. “It was good to meet you, Beatrice. Tell Nate I said hello.”

She walked away, looking back once. He stood where she’d left him, watching her from the pier. A sandwich in one hand, a fishing pole in the other.

Beatrice opened the front door as quietly as she could, hoping to sneak upstairs and shower before her granddad caught a glimpse of her. Halfway up the steps, she heard, “Beatrice? What in the world?”

Her grandfather stood in the kitchen doorway, looking up at her and holding a jar of mayonnaise.

She sighed. No way around this one. She knew what she looked like. “I fell into the lake,” she admitted, retracing her steps. “But I’m fi – ”

“What do you mean, you fell into the lake?” His blue eyes had widened behind his glasses. “This lake?”

“I’m all right, honest. Colin helped me out and – ” She drew up short on the bottom step as the jar fell from his hand and hit the floor. “Granddad?”

He paid no attention to the jar, his eyes fixed on her. “Who did you say?”

“Colin.” She pointed across the living room to the glass doors, where she could see straight across the lake. “He lives in that…” She trailed off, mystified, and walked to the doors for a better look.

It was the same house. She knew it was. A yellow Victorian directly across from her grandfather’s, with a wraparound porch and orange rosebushes.

But the house she was looking at was a ruin.

Windows boarded up, the lawn grown high with weeds. The pier – the same pier she had fallen off – broken at its halfway point, rotted boards dipping into the lake. Something cold crept along the back of her neck as her grandfather came to stand beside her.

“Granddad. I don’t understand. I was just there.”

“What happened?” he asked quietly.

She told him everything: the curious silver vines, the tumble, Colin rescuing her, the yellow house in perfect condition.

Her grandfather said nothing for a long time. And then, “Colin Morrell was my best friend. He lived in that house. When we were boys …”

She waited, and when he remained silent, said, “What happened?”

“He fell into the lake, Bea, and we didn’t get to him in time. He was caught in the vines.”

Strangler vines.

She pictured a boy with blonde hair and arms strong enough to pull her to safety. He’d said, “Tell Nate I said hello.” Not Mr. Elliot, the way you would normally address someone as old as her granddad. Not even Nathaniel. He’d said Nate, like they were old friends.

She placed the back of her hand against her cheek. It was ice cold. “When did he …?”

“Fifty years ago.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. His hand shook slightly. “We were your age. Just 16 years old.”